Faust to Convene Committee on Social Sciences

Science committee will serve as model for strengthening inderdisciplinary research

Harvard is planning to launch a University-wide social sciences task force charged with examining how to coordinate resources and facilities to cultivate interdisciplinary work in those fields, University President Drew G. Faust said in an interview with The Crimson yesterday.

The task force, she said, will be modeled in part on the University Planning Committee For Science and Engineering. Formed in January 2006, that group took just under a year to release its final report, which recommended the creation of a permanent University-wide science oversight committee, and the University’s first inter-faculty department. Both debuted last April, within months of the release of the committee’s report.

“We see some kinds of parallels that one might not initially think of when you think of social science versus science,” Faust said, highlighting the ways in which the social sciences, like the hard sciences, could benefit from sharing resources such as technology.

Faust said that she wants to seek ways to create a “support system” for the social sciences, as well as encourage collaboration on overarching social issues. She cited health care policy as an example of an area where the University could benefit from increased coordination within the social sciences.

In a letter to the Harvard community last week, Faust mentioned several times her desire “to work to become a university known more for bridges and less for walls.”

Robert D. Putnam, the Malkin professor of public policy and a former dean at the Kennedy School of Government, said that currently the University “underplays its assets in the social sciences because of the divisions across the schools and across departments” within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

“There are large numbers of great social scientists in many parts of the University who talk to each other too little,” Putnam said. “In the social sciences, as in many fields, Harvard is in fact less than the sum of its parts.”

In addition to the “intellectual gains” created by more interactions between professors in the social sciences across the University, Putnam described “practical and material gains.”

Putnam said, just as the hard sciences profit from sharing labs, social scientists could benefit by pooling survey research technology and joining together when they sponsor surveys to increase their purchasing power.

David M. Cutler ’87, FAS’s divisional dean for the social sciences, said yesterday that faculty interest in the initiative is high because social scientists increasingly see their work not only in the context of a single field but also within a much broader area of interest.

“There’s a sense that we need to think about what it means to teach and study areas of inquiry and areas in the world that don’t fit into neat departmental boxes,” Cutler said.

Cutler said Faust, Provost Steven E. Hyman, FAS Dean Michael D. Smith, and “various other deans” have all expressed interest in the project, but that they have not yet begun to contact professors about serving on the task force.

Planning for the initiative is in its early stages, but Faust said she hopes to launch it this semester.

“The nature of scholarship changes, as it always does,” Cutler said. “Every so often we need to say, ‘Where do we think the important questions are today, and where will the important questions be in a few years?’”

—Staff writer Claire M. Guehenno can be reached at

—Staff writer Laurence H. M. Holland can be reached at


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