Filling gaps to solve big problems
By Paul Whitney, CAS senior associate dean and professor of psychology
Federal agencies that drive America’s scientific problem-solving efforts are increasingly calling for inventive, multidisciplinary teams with a deep understanding of how people and institutions adapt to change and respond to innovation. To address this pressing need, a diverse team of social scientists in the College of Arts and Sciences is working to create the Initiative for Global Innovation Studies.
IGIS aims to fill the critical need for interdisciplinary social and behavioral research to inform efforts to solve a wide range of regional and global challenges.
Technology and innovation undoubtedly improve lives worldwide, but negative consequences can occur when attempts to solve complex problems through technology neglect the essential human elements. Promoting health, overcoming environmental degradation, and enhancing prospects for a sustainable future require broad-based strategic approaches that reach beyond technological innovation and interventions to address social, political, and anthropological implications.
The IGIS vision is unique in bringing together experts in the study of behavior, culture, and policy to tackle impediments to innovation in ways that cut across the interconnected issues of health, environmental resources, and sustainability. This focus allows IGIS to look for common elements in various innovation failures and to establish general principles for promoting successful innovation.
IGIS also makes it easier for internal and external collaborators to partner with WSU faculty who are experts in the human side of barriers to innovation.
Although the specific challenges to promoting the health of people and their environments cut across very different scientific, biomedical, and engineering research areas, effective implementation of innovations in each area depends on understanding cultural, social, behavioral, economic, and policy barriers to change. IGIS allows for coordination and collaboration of efforts to understand and overcome such barriers, in many cases by embedding basic, theory-driven social science research activities within the context of grand challenges.
In one example, IGIS seed funding has helped Robert and Marsha Bogar Quinlan (anthropology) and Tom Rotolo (sociology) team with researchers in WSU’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health and the School of Economic Sciences on projects designed to understand social and cultural factors in the spread of antibiotic disease resistance in Africa. The CAS researchers also helped characterize the factors that make populations in the region more or less susceptible to the effects of environmental degradation.
Closer to home, but still very much within the IGIS approach, Cristine Horne and Scott Frickel, two sociology faculty members active in IGIS, have teamed with engineering faculty to design projects that promise to help us understand how the various human and corporate entities involved in energy generation and transmission interact, and how these interactions may affect the efficiency and vulnerability of our power systems.
As these examples show, social scientists are posing and testing questions of fundamental importance to their disciplines, collaborating in ways that enable cross-disciplinary fertilization of ideas, and translating basic social science into potential solutions to significant problems at home and around the globe.
Anyone interested in engaging with IGIS may contact Paul Whitney at email@example.com or 509-335-4581.