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The Russell Sage Foundation (RSF) has long had the mission to improve social and living conditions in the United States. It pursues this goal by supporting outstanding research in the social sciences that explores how social, economic, and political factors affect the lives of Americans and their children. Support of such research remains the Foundation’s core focus. RSF also has a long history of encouraging new scientific advances to strengthen the methods, data, and theoretical core of the social sciences.
Two recent intellectual developments have prompted RSF to launch a special research initiative that integrates knowledge from the biological and social sciences. First, there has been a paradigm shift in the life sciences, spurred by the realization that many biological processes, rather than being fixed, immutable mechanisms that consign people to particular life outcomes, are instead fluid, dynamic responses to features of the social and physical environments humans inhabit. Second, this shift led researchers to launch interdisciplinary studies that seek to integrate approaches from the social and biological sciences, recognizing the potential for a deeper understanding of how social inequalities are initiated, maintained, and transmitted from one generation to the next.
After decades of debate, a consensus is emerging that socio-behavioral outcomes are both biological and social, and further, that the structural inequalities of social environments become embedded in our biological makeup across all stages of development. Increasing understanding about this bi-directional relationship between the biological and the social domains is made possible by innovations in technology which allow the measurement of many biological factors – including genetic and epigenetic markers, gene expression, hormone and inflammation levels, and brain structure and function. Integrating biology into social science models, and social and environmental circumstances into biological models, can further our understanding of the pathways through which social and physical environments influence individual and group behaviors and other outcomes, yielding insights into mechanisms contributing to individual differences in response to interventions.
Several well-established studies provide empirical links between social structure, group-level and individual-level experiences and biological markers and processes. Conducting these studies is not without risk, especially because the intellectual integration of biology and social science has been a particularly sensitive and misused area of inquiry and polemical discourse in the past. It is therefore imperative that as biological data become more accessible to social science researchers, policymakers and the public alike, scholarship that integrates biology and social science not only be carried out with scientific rigor and caution, but also be interpreted and communicated with rigor and caution. With these goals in mind, RSF is now supporting this integrative research.
The integration of biological and social science research is in its early years and the initial results are promising. Nevertheless, we believe it can best achieve its potential and have a positive impact if it develops through rigorous collaborative research generated by social and biological scientists.
To date, life scientists have been at the center of the debate when biology has been discussed in relation to individual development and social and economic outcomes. Through this initiative on Integrating Biology and Social Science Knowledge (BioSS), RSF seeks to rebalance the debate by highlighting social scientists’ emphasis on the social and physical environments and by encouraging cross-disciplinary collaborations. RSF aims to capitalize on new theories, concepts, and data from the biological sciences – including neuroscience, endocrinology, immunology and physiology, population genetics and epigenetics – to advance our understanding of the research that continues to comprise its core social science programs in Social Inequality, Behavioral Economics, Future of Work, and Race, Ethnicity and Immigration.
The initiative, in collaboration with the JPB Foundation, will support innovative social science research on social and economic outcomes that improves our understanding of the interactive mechanisms by which environmental influences affect biological mechanisms, and vice versa. This includes research that: (1) estimates how the structured nature of the social environment and intra- and intergenerational social inequalities affect biological processes, (2) identifies which indicators of biological processes interact with the social environment to affect different life domains and how, and (3) yields new conceptual frameworks that holistically characterize the complex relationships among biological, psychological and environmental factors to predict a range of behavioral and social outcomes. We are primarily interested in research that explores and improves our understanding of social and economic predictors and outcomes. Examples of the kinds of topics and questions that are of interest include, but are not restricted to, those described below.
Perceptions of the Role of Biology in Human Behavior and Social and Economic Outcomes
There exists a troubling history in the social sciences regarding misattributions to genetic and biological sources of a range of traits, behaviors and social and economic outcomes (e.g., “biological essentialism” or “biological determinism”). This obsolete view portrayed biological factors as immutable and did not consider, or dismissed, the role of environmental factors, including interactions between biological and environmental mechanisms. This perception of biological essentialism has discouraged research on the role of biology in human behavior for fear of (1) obscuring environmental, social and political influences on social and economic outcomes, and/or (2) disadvantaging already disadvantaged groups through misinterpretation or misrepresentation of findings.
However, recognizing biological plasticity in response to environmental factors creates new opportunities to explore the biology of human behavior from a dynamic perspective that incorporates biological-environmental interplay as a process through which behavior emerges. RSF welcomes proposals addressing public and scientific understanding, as well as possible misunderstandings, of the influence of biological factors in human traits, behaviors and outcomes. What are the public and scientific attitudes and beliefs about the role biology plays in human behavior and social and economic outcomes? What factors are related to essentialist beliefs and biases relative to constructivist views? How do these attitudes and beliefs play out in different arenas such as legislation, policy and scientific activities? Potential approaches to addressing these questions should consider engaging affected communities, interested stakeholders, and scientists with diverse experiences and perspectives.
The Hidden Costs of Social Mobility
Miller et al. (2015), find that despite significant socioeconomic risk factors (e.g., chronic poverty, limited educational and occupational opportunities, racism), some poor rural African American youth display remarkable resilience, achieving academic success and positive social development. These same individuals, however, also display increased signs of health risks, such as higher blood pressure, unhealthy body mass, stress hormones, and cellular aging, which have the potential to erode some of the benefits that upward mobility provides. RSF seeks research that examines (1) the extent to which these biological costs vary across other samples and representative populations, including other racial and ethnic groups, and by gender, nativity or socio-economic status, (2) the social, structural or biological mechanisms by which social mobility can yield differential returns to education or other indicators of success for different social groups, and (3) the extent to which these biological costs might impact other aspects of well-being, such as mental health.
Early and Later Life Adversity
Studies using animal models (rodents) suggest that early-life adversity influences development by disrupting the functioning of stress response systems. However, the evidence from humans has been mixed. Yang et al. (2016) report relationship deficits—such as social isolation, lack of support, or high strain—as forms of social adversity that can create chronic stress by continuous exposures that accumulate over the life course. What innovative study designs can help resolve conflicting results in humans regarding early life adversity? How can biological indicators of early-life adversity be leveraged to understand optimal points of intervention for academic success and socio-economic mobility? Moving beyond a focus on the limbic system (e.g. amygdala and hippocampus) in neuroscience studies, what are some of the neurobiological targets of early-life adversity? Are there epigenetic effects associated with these experiences and are there multigenerational epigenetic consequences of adversity? What are the broader social factors that contribute to the individual-level experience of adversity and how can policy interventions that target ecological factors impact biological outcomes to ameliorate long-term behavioral outcomes?
Socioeconomic Status, Brain Development, and Academic Outcomes
Recent studies by Hanson et al. (2012), and Noble, et al. (2015) have reported that variability in parental SES is associated with variability in children’s brain structure, including regions of the brain associated with cognitive ability and emotional regulation. Some media reports about this research have led to the unfortunate interpretation that the effects of low income are immutable, resulting in life-long damage to the brain. RSF encourages transformative research that will clarify the mutability of development over the life course. Research might explore how the structure of the child’s environment links neural outcomes with academic performance, including the effects of environmental stimulation and deprivation, and other factors associated with advantaged or disadvantaged environments. We seek to better understand the neurobiological correlates of these environments and how they might be related to academic achievement, educational attainment, or labor market success. How do biological, psychological and social factors work together or independently to mediate the impact of different social and physical environments, either negatively or positively? To what extent can interventions impact these developmental trajectories?
Can research that integrates biomarkers and health indicators into social science models help us better understand social integration and exclusion among the children of immigrants? What protective factors may be lost with "Americanization," producing success on some socio-economic outcomes, such as education or employment, but biological costs on others? Are there factors that promote improved biological functioning rather than biological costs?
Neuroscience and Behavioral Economics
Psychologists and economists use intertemporal choice paradigms to investigate people’s choices between immediate versus delayed rewards. Recent studies examine the neural underpinnings of affect, sensitivity to rewards and revealed preferences (e.g., Camerer et al., forthcoming). Can structural and functional neuroimaging measures help to test between competing models of intertemporal choice or shed light on biological mechanisms underlying how exposure to different social environments affects reward-related decision-making? Is it possible to use such measures to study the effects of interventions intended to mediate exposures to disadvantaged environments?
Risk vs. Resilience to Adversity
Though socioeconomic disadvantage is associated with adverse behavioral and health outcomes, some individuals achieve academic and labor market success despite environmental risks. Animal model studies suggest that individuals who exhibit resilience in the face of adverse conditions or environments have epigenetic profiles that are distinct from those who are more susceptible to such conditions (Singh-Taylor et al., 2015). We are interested in research that leads to a better understanding of the biological and social processes that help promote resilience.
Biological Aging and Environment
DNA methylation is an epigenetic modification that affects gene expression. Among adults, genome-wide DNA methylation patterns may provide an index of biological aging, independent of chronological age (Hannum et al., 2013; Horvath, 2013). Moreover, the gap between chronological age and DNA methylation-predicted age (methylation age acceleration) is an index of the pace of biological aging that is correlated with physical fitness, cognitive ability, and mortality in older adults (Marioni et al., 2015). Various indicators of biological aging are potential windows into the effects of social structure and experiences that could extend our understanding of the benefits and costs of mobility and resilience, both biological and social.
Genes and Gene-Environment (GxE) Interactions
It is now understood that the predictive value of genetic variation can only be interpreted in the context of environmental factors; for example, 100 years ago, having two X chromosomes instead of one had dramatic effects on educational and career trajectories – an effect that was, and is, contingent on the level of social, educational and economic opportunities available to women vs. men. Similarly, in a famous example from Goldberger (1979), the widespread use of eyeglasses eliminates the effects of genes on eyesight and hence social outcomes. Current research includes examination of multiple types of GxE interactions. Recent studies of gene-environment interactions have supported the "differential susceptibility" hypothesis, which holds that individuals with certain genetic profiles may be particularly sensitive to social environments – both positive/enriching and adverse/impoverished (Boardman, et al., 2013; Belsky and Pluess, 2009; Ellis and Boyce, 2011). Gene-environment approaches may expand our understanding of how environments interact with individual differences in biology and highlight the role of the environment in shaping behavioral outcomes through epigenetic mechanisms (Meaney, 2010).
The highest priority will be given to projects that are closely aligned with the Foundation’s program areas in Social Inequality, Behavioral Economics, Future of Work, and Race, Ethnicity and Immigration. Proposals should be clear as to (1) how the proposed project informs and advances these research priorities, and (2) how the proposed biological mechanisms will be leveraged to further our understanding of the social, political, and economic outcomes of primary interest to the Foundation. RSF is highly committed to and values the importance of reproducibility and open science, and where applicable, investigators should explain their data release plan (data, code, codebooks) or any prohibitions on providing such materials.
RSF is equally committed to responsible scientific communication. Investigators should explain how they will ensure that the dissemination of results is done responsibly, both in professional and popular media context. Given the propensity for misinterpretation and misrepresentation of such analyses and findings, resulting papers might be accompanied by a detailed set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), (see Okbay, et al., 2016; Rietveld, et al., 2013; 2014; also see, Nature Editorial (2013), that cites these FAQs as a model for other scientists to follow in communicating their results) or other mechanisms that aid in better understanding the results. RSF will not fund projects focused on disease outcomes or on health outcomes without a clear tie to social and economic consequences.
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Boardman, Jason D., Jonathan Daw, and Jeremy Freese. "Defining the environment in gene–environment research: Lessons from social epidemiology." American Journal of Public Health 103, no. S1 (2013): S64-S72.
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