Letter from the President
In 2014, twelve US institutions of higher education joined together to form the founding membership of the College and University Fund for the Social Sciences, a consortium of higher education institutions dedicated to enhancing the infrastructure of social science scholarship. Today, this group has tripled in size and is comprised of nearly forty esteemed institutions, including colleges and universities across the country.
It is our great pleasure to convene senior leaders from these institutions every other year for a conference focused on high-level, strategic conversations around significant issues facing the social sciences and related fields. In 2017, we deliberated over the actions higher education institutions might take “to secure knowledge” at a moment when expertise and knowledge claims are contested, relationships between the academy, government, and industry are transforming, and growing numbers of social scientists work outside of academe.
More recently, this past fall we delved into the present and future of global and transregional research during a day of breakout conversations framed by panel discussions. The panels centered our deliberations around three general areas of concern: the changing relationship between global research and contextual, place-based knowledge; the demands on, and aspirations of, higher education institutions to “internationalize”; and the future of global and transnational studies in both intellectual and institutional terms.
For the Social Science Research Council, these are not idle conversations. The questions posed at the conference are at the core of our work. For many scholars, the Council will always be known for the central role it played in the formation of area studies after World War II, and for the way it helped to transform the trajectory of international research when, in the 1990s, then-president Ken Prewitt disbanded the Council’s area studies committees in favor of a focus on new questions facing an increasingly connected world in the midst of digitization and globalization. As he wrote then, to achieve a better understanding of the post–Cold War world would require an emphasis on “migrations and intersections of people, ideas, institutions, technologies and commodities….” In response, the Council would implement several key changes to what was then called the International Program, including the launch of regional advisory panels featuring strong representation from scholars located in those parts of the world and efforts to drive a global conversation about building research capacity worldwide.
But the world of 2020 is not the same as the world of the 1990s, any more than the world of 1990s was the same one the Council’s area committees studied in the 1960s. Reexamining these questions and reorienting the Council’s priorities as needed is perhaps even more critical today. Addressing widespread crises including climate change and inequality will require international collaboration and cooperation at a moment when nationalism and isolationism are on the rise, threatening the kinds of cross-national scholarly collaborations that can produce valuable knowledge and help find solutions to the most pressing global challenges.
And so we convened the representatives of the College and University Fund for the Social Sciences to help us think through the challenges facing all of our institutions and the ways that the Council might best support both institutions and individual researchers in the near future.
Our aims for the day’s conversations were both diagnostic and aspirational. So we posed two broad questions to the panelists and attendees: One, what is the current state of transregional and global studies at your institutions, with regards to both research and pedagogy? And two, thinking aspirationally while also being mindful of budgetary constraints and political headwinds, what are our collective “blue sky” visions for the future of transregional and global research? Does our “blue sky” vision even use those labels? And what scholarly and organizational commitments will it take for us to achieve those aims?
The responses to these questions by the attendees of the 2019 College and University Fund Conference will inform the Council’s commitments to transregional research in 2020 and beyond. As we confront the social, political, and economic challenges posed to our institutions and to our world by the Covid-19 pandemic and other global crises, sustaining international studies and transnational ties of all kinds has rarely been more under question or more important.
I invite you explore some of the highlights and recommendations from the 2019 College and University Fund Conference, and to read more about various SSRC initiatives that will be incorporating some of these recommendations as we strategize new ways to support research and researchers, in light of recent social transformations and with conviction that scholarship can help us better apprehend our world.
As always, we welcome your feedback and your input. The Council is only as strong as the partnerships it builds across institutions and between individual scholars. It has sometimes been described as “a network of networks.” The College and University Fund for the Social Sciences is a critical piece of our network, and we hope that this information will be useful in leveraging that network to the lasting benefit of global scholarship.
Social Science Research Council
2019 Conference Highlights
As the conference planning committee—Rachel Croson (University of Minnesota), Charles Hale (University of California–Santa Barbara), Kevin McLaughlin (Brown University), Cybele Raver (New York University), and Celeste Watkins-Hayes (Northwestern University)—deliberated on the topics and questions to be addressed at the 2019 conference, it was apparent that the who, what, where, and why of global and transregional studies are all experiencing transformations:Who
In recent years, we have moved from a research environment in which individual scholars have been focused on doing international research, perhaps under the auspices of a university center or department, to a world in which many higher education institutions have much broader ambitions and strategies for internationalization. Many US institutions now aim for all faculty and students to have some sort of international engagement or experience, and in fact we see some US institutions voicing aspirations to be global in themselves. Additionally, the large philanthropies that historically supported American expertise on other parts of the world have in many cases shifted priorities to favor capacity building for scholars and institutions located in those parts of the world, broadening the range of scholars engaged in doing transregional research and reshaping its concepts and topics of concern.What
Arguably, the research environment has changed over time from one of retrieval—in which the expected form of international research was a scholar going to another country and then bringing that knowledge back home—to an environment that increasingly values research collaborations across borders and institutions. But this emphasis on international collaboration has not yet been sufficiently accompanied by adequate incentives, best-practice models, or funding structures to make such collaborations possible.Where
The “where” of transregional research in the past was clear: a scholar identified a place—a region, a country, a city, a village—and went there to gather data that helped to answer a question. This is still a common path, in some fields. But increasingly, the “place” itself is not singular. Researchers are tracing social processes across borders and regions and comparing how phenomena play out in different settings. While global flows and power relations are now more central to international research agendas, training for such work lags behind the need to engage transregional topics. Additionally, transregional research is increasingly being pursued either partly or entirely through digital or outsourced means, a trend that affects both collaborative and individual modes of research. While these methods have offered researchers access to valuable data and reduced some of the barriers to and costs of international scholarship, they have also altered the kinds of ancillary knowledge that were formerly acquired through place-based and/or document-reliant research, and therefore fundamentally altered research outcomes.Why
This is less a question of why we should pursue international and transregional research than of why we need to think critically about how best to pursue it right now. We have seen philanthropy taking a turn away from funding for higher education and research, and in many cases turning away from the kind of longue durée research that has historically been fundamental to colleges and universities, to the SSRC, and to international scholarship more broadly. This comes on top of a declining investment in social science research by the federal government just as rising nationalism and current national security imperatives demand increased knowledge and deepened understanding that crosses national borders. Decreased investment coupled with increased need puts all of us in a position to think very carefully about how we can best leverage our networks and institutional structures to continue generating necessary knowledge around and about the world.
These are questions of scholarship and research but also of pedagogy and institutional form. The conference’s three panels were organized to address these varied dimensions of the topic.
Thinking Global AND Local: International Knowledge
Kaiama Glover, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of French and Africana Studies, Barnard College
Annelise Riles, Executive Director, Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs and Associate Provost for Global Affairs, Northwestern University
Paul Zeleza, Vice Chancellor, United States International University–Africa
This panel set a broad frame for the day’s conversations, orienting them around questions of ethics, access, privilege, and collaboration. Panelists expanded on the historical imperatives both for doing this work and for thinking deeply about issues of access and ethical collaboration, adding a post-colonial perspective to questions of the transregional and transnational. Speaking from her perspective as an expert on the post-colonial, Francophone Caribbean, Kaiama Glover introduced the issue of translation and suggested that institutions should of course continue to provide language learning opportunities, but noted that a focus on translation study can also be a way to foreground voices from the global South.
Panelists also questioned how we construct areas and regions of study. Paul Zeleza’s remarks asked attendees to think critically about what constitutes a “region” and whose constructs of regionality enjoy wide circulation and acceptance. He gave three primary recommendations to American universities: first, the need to construct international studies programs that are open, flexible, interactive, invitational, and global rather than ethnocentric. Second, the need to support research models that ensure interdisciplinary and geographic collaborations that are mutually beneficial rather than hierarchical. And third, that universities and departments honor and validate projects that build in commitments to ethical integrity, intercultural competency, and epistemic humility.
All the panelists agreed that in a moment of great institutional and individual experimentation—including satellite campuses, digital research environments, and new circulations of knowledge and people—it is vital that we find a way to be more thoughtful about which kinds of experiments serve to democratize knowledge and encourage inclusivity and participation. All researchers should critically examine experiments that might serve to reinforce or entrench existing hierarchies—both hierarchies of knowledge, where certain types of knowledge are presumed to be more valuable than other types, and also hierarchies of institutions and individuals.
Concluding her remarks, Annelise Riles asserted,
“In an era in which the university is no longer simply in the nation’s service, and indeed when the very purpose of the nation state is under legitimate question in conditions of rising nationalism, the institutional project to create equitable, sustainable relationships of two-way learning is not just a means to gather better facts about the world, in the service of the nation state’s needs, but rather an alternative to the failures of the nation state, in the service not of the state, but of the world and the planet.”
Experiments in Global and Transnational Studies: Intellectual and Institutional Innovations
Cheng Li, Director, John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution and Member, SSRC Visiting Committee
Lara Putnam, UCIS Research Professor and Chair of the Dept. of History, University of Pittsburgh
Danilyn Rutherford, President, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
This panel focused on the current research environment, examined some successful ongoing experiments, and explored some of the barriers to achieving strong transnational collaborations. Panelists zeroed in on the “how” of transregional research. Lara Putnam, for example, argued that while digitized and accessible archives and datasets are now available for international research, place-based fieldwork is irreplaceable for addressing many of the most pressing questions for scholarship.
On a functional level, panelists discussed international funding mechanisms and ways to address resource inequities in terms of supporting international students who are studying at US institutions. In addition, they suggested that universities are in a position to implement some relatively simple mechanisms for more equitably distributing roles and resources toward North-South or South-South collaborations, such as thinking about new conference and workshop locations.
The panel also addressed educational exchanges between the US and China at a moment of acute international pressure and potential conflict, and expressed the increasing need for expertise and openness in a world currently hemmed in by fear and distrust. Cheng Li’s remarks focused on this deteriorating bilateral relationship and its implications for scholarship and educational exchange. He began with a quote from H. G. Wells that aptly centers the vital role played by institutions of higher education, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” For education to win that race, administrators must be careful to differentiate between state relations and civil society interactions, encouraging open exchange between US and Chinese scholars and speaking out against isolationism and the politicization of research. By pursuing open dialogue and building strong relationships, universities are in a position to stem the tide of fear, support Chinese citizens studying in the US, and ensure the safety of their own students and faculty pursuing research abroad.
Panelists acknowledged that, given national security concerns and the politicization of research, the driving forces impeding productive collaboration may be outside the control of individual organizations. But for some of these questions, the forces are in our control. One suggestion was that attendees take time to think critically about the many heirarchies that keep circuits of knowledge creation narrow and insular. More specifically, it was noted that capacity building will be critical for creating a more inclusive system of knowledge production, but that capacity building needs to start at home. We can’t begin by saying, “Oh, there are deficits out there. We need to build capacity out there.” Instead, we begin by acknowledging that there are deficits in our own models and institutions. We need to build internal capacity, to prepare ourselves to engage as effective, collaborative partners to those on the outside.
Danilyn Rutherford noted that on the funding side, this internal capacity building needs to include both diversifying reviewer pools and training reviewers to recognize the strengths of proposals that may not include references to familiar theories that define research agendas in their proximate scholarly communities.
In thinking over her copanelists’ remarks, Rutherford concluded,
“Democratizing knowledge production requires the willingness to give up some control on the part of people who have had power. In thinking about how we can be more innovative…perhaps the biggest innovation is to be a little bit more open in the way that we’re thinking about what we’re doing. And perhaps a little bit less directive.”
The Internationalization of Higher Education: Peering into the Future
Katherine Fleming, Provost, New York University
Allan Goodman, President, Institute of International Education
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Director of Research, Center for University Excellence, American University
The day’s concluding panel addressed some of the larger structural issues faced by universities in designing departments, centers, collaborative partnerships, and satellite campuses. University, departmental, and disciplinary structures all have the potential to encourage or discourage the achievement of deep international expertise, since such specialized knowledge is typically a long-term investment of both time and resources. If we place a high value on place-based knowledge, then it is critical for administrators and departments to think carefully about things like criteria for hiring and tenure, and for universities and other funding institutions to consider whether the investments we are making are in line with that stated value.
On a broader structural level, it was noted that at this point nearly every US institution of higher education has some kind of senior internationalization officer, a trend that allows institutions to connect more seamlessly than would have been imaginable even a decade ago. And this kind of relationship is likely to be critical as we attempt to coalesce around solutions to issues like climate change. Introducing her remarks, Katherine Fleming stated, “The most intractable problems that research is now being directed toward are by definition transnational, global problems. Whether they have to do with migration or climate change, they cannot possibly be resolved by national research efforts.”
This panel took the day’s “blue sky” mandate the furthest, looking toward a future research environment that might require some kind of global funding mechanism, and also making implementable suggestions for ways universities can better support international exchange through initiatives like funding the cost of passports for students or restructuring undergraduate curricula to encourage students to spend more time abroad.
The need to create spaces and structures to encourage vigorous exchange and promote intellectual heterogeneity between diverse communities of students on US campuses was also a focus of conversation, as well as the need to better support international students in the United States. Fleming noted that NYU has recently been spending more time thinking about how life on the New York campus constitutes a study abroad experience for international students, not unlike how US universities think about the experiences and knowledge they want American students to get from studying elsewhere.
2019 Conference Recommendations
At the conclusion of the day’s panels, we invited participants to reflect and make recommendations for roles the SSRC might play or steps that could be taken to help institutions move into the next era of global and transregional research.
Those recommendations fell into three general categories:
Continue the Conversation
Participants suggested that the SSRC might convene disciplinary-based research or learned societies for high-level conversations about how the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, and interdisciplinary studies programs can plan jointly for building a more equitable system of international knowledge production. In addition, attendees suggested a convening that would include representatives from related bodies and associations around the world, such as the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa and the International Association of Universities, for a serious conversation around models for collaboration and ways to integrate US institutions into the global research environment in this new moment.
Improving the Knowledge Base on Collaboration
This is clearly a moment of tremendous experimentation. New models for collaboration, new methodologies, and new funding mechanisms are emerging from all corners of the globe. Attendees suggested that it may be time to try to categorize some of these experiments and to do some “social science on social science.” How do we identify and implement best practices for building strong international collaborations? And are new rubrics needed to evaluate these new modes of work? It was suggested that the SSRC may be in a position to inventory the types of experimentation underway, do some analysis, refine definitions, and articulate criteria for best practice.
A Network of Networks across Fields and Industries
Participants noted that the SSRC has historically been an agenda-setting force across the social sciences, both by building out fields in areas of emerging interest and by directing research funding through innovative forms of fellowships and grants. That continues to be a critical role for the Council in this current moment, as the next generation of scholars pursue their careers in a rapidly changing institutional and global environment.
In addition, we can’t ignore the fact that much of today’s international research is being done by social scientists working outside the academy, especially in the corporate world. Most prominent is perhaps the tech industry, which gathers and profits from knowledge of human behavior. How can we ensure that ethical research standards and best practices are carried out across sectors in ways that benefit the public as well as the bottom line?
Transregional Collaboration: The Present and Future of International Research at the SSRC
Between 2010 and 2019 the SSRC distributed more than $24 million in funding for international research. That $24 million was distributed through approximately 2,500 awards from a pool of more than 20,000 applicants. It is clear that the demand for funding for international research remains incredibly high, and the Council is committed to expanding opportunities to do so.
As our largest fellowship program, the International Dissertation Research Fellowship (IDRF) continues to have the broadest impact we make on individual scholars pursuing international research. Since 1997, IDRF has received 23,163 applications and awarded 1,481 fellowships. The fellowship provides support for nine to twelve months of dissertation research for scholars in the humanities and social sciences pursuing research that advances knowledge about non-US cultures and societies.
But we are increasingly dedicated to supporting new models for research collaborations that are transregional in scope. In 2020 the SSRC will launch a thematic portfolio we are calling “Transregional Collaboration,” bringing together new and existing Council programs. A more cohesive approach to our existing transregional programs will help in addressing the recommendations made by 2019 conference attendees. It also jumpstarts a conversation about new possibilities for international work at the Council—whether focused on particular regions, themes, capacity-building efforts, or collaboration. Currently, our programming in Transregional Collaboration falls under three broad categories: collaborative research, connecting scholarship to policy and practice, and bilateral exchanges. Updates from a selection of related programs can be found below.
Collaborative ResearchTransregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean
The Council’s newest program, the Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean, is born of environmental realities—the Indian Ocean is the fastest-warming ocean in the world—and principles central to the SSRC’s mission. Resonant with recommendations made at the 2019 College and University Fund for the Social Sciences Conference, the program is purposefully designed to foster new models for research norms that emphasize best practices for transnational collaboration across access and resource disparities and to support institutions and researchers that have been overlooked by models of research partnership historically driven by institutions from the global North.
While the Collaboratory focuses on a central location and theme, it also bridges geographic, institutional, and academic boundaries. The Collaboratory unites scholars across the region and the globe focusing on the implications of environmental issues such as saltwater intrusion, disruption of traditional trade patterns, and changing migration dynamics.
In early 2020, the Collaboratory launched its inaugural call for proposals for Transregional Planning Grants. The CFP invites proposals for twelve-month planning grants to develop collaborative research projects on the relationship between political, economic, and social processes and profound climate and environmental change in and across Indian Ocean countries. The aim of these grants is to help develop robust projects eligible for future funding, including the Collaboratory’s second phase, for which applications will be due in May 2021. Planning grant recipients will receive up to $35,000.
In addition to their funded proposals, researchers will participate in workshops organized by the program, focusing on themes such as the modes of collaborative research, the advancement of ethical practices related to research collaboration, and others that emerge from the grantees themselves. We hope that these workshops will help us begin to address the need for improving the knowledge base on best practices for collaborative resarch, one of the primary recommendations made at the CUF conference.
Connecting Scholarship to Policy and PracticeConflict Prevention and Peace Forum
Discussions at the conference made it clear that for many scholars, transregional research priorities are inextricably linked to issues of policy and practice. The SSRC’s Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum (CPPF) addresses this link by working to strengthen the knowledge base and analytic capacity of the UN community in the fields of conflict prevention and management, peacemaking, and sustaining peace. CPPF was created in the aftermath of the 2000 Panel Report on Peacekeeping, chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi, which highlighted the shortcomings in the UN’s capacity to understand and address the complex challenges of preventing or responding to armed conflict. CPPF helps to bridge the gap between research and policymaking by providing rapid access to leading experts through off-the-record briefings and commissioned research.
Earlier this year, CPPF convened the second research workshop of its Academic Network on Peace, Security, and the United Nations. Focused on “Disinformation, Democratic Processes, and Conflict Prevention,” it examined emerging findings on information disorder and the linkages between disinformation, elections, hate speech, and identity-based violence. Participants drew on cases in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The workshop also explored the ways in which disinformation affects the UN conflict prevention agenda, and how the UN system can better identify, track, and respond to the negative impacts of disinformation in countries and regions where the UN is engaged.
This workshop drew on MediaWell, the Council’s disinformation research mapping web platform, and on the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa program, a pillar of the Council’s transregional capacity-building work. We will continue work in this vein, bringing together resources from across the Council’s programs, as we build out our thematic portfolio on Transregional Collaboration.
Various Council programs have long been focused on bilateral research exchanges between scholars in the US and scholars in other regions. The Council’s Cuba Program and Abe Fellowship Program, supporting US- and Japan-based researchers, are current examples of this kind of work.
Inspired by discussions at the 2019 College and University Fund for the Social Sciences Conference, which emphasized the critical importance of sustaining and building strong bilateral exchanges between the US and China at a moment when both national governments are pursuing increasingly isolationist policies, the SSRC has begun to explore ways to pursue open research collaborations in this challenging environment. In reponse, we will be building on our strong history supporting bilateral research exchanges by convening a group focused on issues specific to social science research on, in, and with China at US universities. We anticipate that the first meeting of this group will take place in fall 2020, and we will be reporting further details in upcoming editions of College and University Fund News.