Integrating Biology and Social Science Knowledge

Incorporating biological theories, concepts, and measures into social science research can further our understanding of how environmental factors influence a range of health and socioeconomic behaviors and outcomes over the life course. In 2011, RSF began to develop a special initiative focused on supporting social science research that incorporates new theories, concepts, and data from the biological sciences—including neuroscience, endocrinology, immunology and physiology, genetics and epigenetics—to inform its core programs on Social, Political and Economic Inequality, Behavioral Economics, Future of Work, and Race, Ethnicity and Immigration.

The Foundation organized several meetings with scholars from multiple social sciences (e.g., sociology, economics, psychology, political science) and biological sciences (e.g., biology, medicine, genetics) to better understand the potential of this research.  In November 2014, RSF established a working group that guided the development of a special initiative in biology and social science. In November 2015, the Trustees approved the first Summer Institute in Social Science Genomics, which has been taught in 2016, 2017 and 2019. In November 2016, the Trustees approved the release of an RFP soliciting investigator-initiated projects on Integrating Biology and Social Science Knowledge (BioSS). A list of the research projects supported under this initiative can be found here. In June 2018, a second summer institute was approved under this initiative, the Summer Institute in Biological Approaches to the Social Sciences.

Current Interests

In March 2019, the Foundation’s trustees decided that RSF would no longer accept unsolicited research proposals under this special initiative. However, it remains interested in supporting research that can advance our understanding of the role of environmental influences on life outcomes when biological concepts, processes and measures are incorporated in social science research. Examples of the kinds of biologically-oriented research questions RSF might support are now included in the RFPs for our programs in Social, Political and Economic Inequality and Race, Ethnicity and Immigration.

RSF will also support efforts to understand the ethical implications of research that incorporates biology and the social sciences, especially in the realm of social science genomics. We also will support efforts that are focused on how to responsibly conduct and communicate biosocial science research findings. For applicants interested in proposing projects on the ethics of biosocial research and responsibly of conducting such research and communicating findings, letters of Inquiry can be submitted through our online system as a “Non-program” project.

RSF will continue its commitment to summer training institutes for early career scholars. In 2019, it is supporting summer programs on Social Science Genomics and Biological Approaches to the Social Sciences and expects to continue to fund similar institutes. Because many social science datasets are collecting biological data and because many social scientists are using these data to further our understanding of environmental influences in their models, RSF will continue to engage in this area with the goal of having a scientifically-responsible impact on the development of the field.

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