Arthur Lupia of NSF's Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate Discusses Challenges, Priorities, and Opportunities for SBE and Researchers
Arthur Lupia of NSF's Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate Discusses Challenges, Priorities, and Opportunities for SBE and Researchers

November 2018

The following Q&A is one in an occasional series of conversations with scholars and policy and opinion leaders with an interest in and commitment to education research. 

Arthur (Skip) Lupia began his new role as assistant director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) on September 1. In this role, he leads the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate as well as participates in the NSF leadership group. Lupia has been the Hal R. Varian Collegiate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan since 2006. His research examines how people manage complex information flows and how they make decisions when they lack information. Lupia also has served as chair of the National Academy of Science's Roundtable of the Application of Social and Behavioral Science Research and is the prior chair of the Center for Open Science’s board of directors. He received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology. Lupia can be contacted at

Q. What about leading the SBE directorate appealed to you?

A.  Today, SBE-supported researchers are working to improve quality of life for individuals, communities, and organizations around the world. They are developing and using a broader and more rigorous range of methods. They are collecting data and doing fieldwork in a much wider range of contexts. They come from a more diverse set of backgrounds. I came to SBE to help support their efforts and to create new opportunities for transformative basic research of this kind.

Q. What do you anticipate will be the most exciting aspect of your job? What do you see as the biggest challenge?

A. The most exciting aspect of the job is the ability to interact with, and learn from, the varied and dynamic research communities whose work energizes the SBE portfolio. The biggest challenge is to articulate the core value-proposition of the SBE portfolio to key stakeholders. Basic research in the SBE sciences is essential to so many human endeavors. Yet, the benefits of this research are easy to mischaracterize. To be in a position where others will trust us to examine critical issues and advance national priorities, we must conduct rigorous and reliable research and then convey its implications accurately and effectively.

Q. What are two or three of your top priorities for SBE? 

A. My guiding priority is to build new ways for SBE to serve the public and advance science. One step on this path is to improve our capacity to communicate with broader and more diverse audiences. We must do a better job of relating our work to others’ lives. Taking this step requires understanding our stakeholders’ core concerns and then offering our explanations in relation to them. Another step is to reposition the research portfolio to better serve people and advance science. We have so many great programs. To remain in the vanguard, we must constantly look for ways to provide greater value to more people. If we sit still, we fall behind. We are now engaging program officers and SBE staff in a visioning exercise that will help the directorate be a more forceful source of discovery and transformative insight in the years to come. It is an exciting time here.

Q. You have been a leader for data sharing and research transparency within the social and behavioral sciences. What role do you see SBE playing in promoting data sharing and replication studies?

A. There is a great deal of interest in, and support for, open science at NSF. Practices such as p-hacking, publication bias, and circulation of false positives can have very negative effects on the people who seek to use research to help others. To improve the public value of the research that we fund, it is imperative that the work be rigorous, reliable, and, where possible, replicable. 

I am involved in many conversations at the foundation about ways to facilitate and incentivize data sharing, research transparency, and open access. Of course, different types of research face different challenges. Some communities can share data easily. Others cannot for ethical or other reasons. We are learning about these differences and responding in that context. At SBE we will be forward-looking and persistent in our efforts to increase the social value of basic research by supporting the policies that will help us produce the most transformative and most reliable basic science possible.

Q. What advice would you give to social and behavioral scientists in communicating their research with public audiences?

A. First, I would take a moment to thank these scientists for doing work that can help others. We should not take such endeavors for granted. It is amazing to live at a time when so many people are inspired to convert the experiential and educational gifts that they have been given, and skills that they have earned, to seek to improve lives for others.

Then, I would ask them to think about the audiences that they seek to address. What are the core aspirations and concerns of this audience? If we can get a clearer picture of the type of information that our audiences need, then we have an opportunity to identify the links between their needs and our work. We must take this step because human attentive capacity is very limited. Attention is often directed to stimuli that appear to be of immediate relevance to core concerns.  If we build the story of our research from the foundation of our audience’s core concerns, we are more likely to earn the attention that subsequent learning requires. If you find a way to tell “their story” of your research instead of “your story” of your research, they are more likely to be engaged and more likely to carry forward, and apply, the lessons of your research. 

Q. NSF’s 10 Big Ideas have been a major focus for the agency. How has SBE been involved with this initiative thus far, and how are you planning to incorporate these in your priorities?

A. The Big Ideas are very important. NSF is “aiming high” with this approach. The Big Ideas pertain to topics that are critically important to the nation. Our approach signals that some of our nation’s greatest challenges require broad interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches. 

There are great opportunities for SBE scholars in this endeavor. For this reason, SBE is very involved in the Big Ideas. We have formal leadership positions in several of them including Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier, Harnessing the Data Revolution, and Understanding the Rules of Life. We are also very involved in most of the others including Growing Convergence Research, Navigating the New Arctic, NSF INCLUDES, and Midscale Research Infrastructure. 

There are many opportunities for SBE scholars to become involved. For example, coming changes to the American workforce, changes in the Arctic and in data networks and ecosystems that often ignore national boundaries. Each of these changes will have massive effects on a wide range of human endeavors. We will also need a deep and accurate understanding of human behavior to adapt effectively, and perhaps thrive, in these new environs. In each case, moreover, we will need ways to develop, implement, and evaluate relevant educational interventions. For these reasons and many others, the Big Ideas create numerous opportunities for social, behavioral, and education-related researchers to produce transformative findings of great social value.

I encourage all scholars who want to aim high, and who are interested in dynamic cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary collaborations, to learn about the Big Ideas. The success of the program will depend on the quality of the proposals that we get. Big Ideas will make a big difference. 

Q. What are some opportunities at SBE that you would like to share with education researchers?

A. In addition to the Big Ideas, I would encourage education researchers to look at the programs in our directorate, as well as those of other directorates. In our directorate, a number of programs support basic research in fields that are quite relevant to education research. Existing programs include Perception, Action, and Cognition; Decision, Risk, and Management Science; Methodology, Measurement, and Statistics; and Science, Technology, and Society. There are many others. 

Another set of opportunities pertain to NCSES (the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics). NCSES is housed in SBE. It is a great source of data on STEM education and related topics. They compile many different kinds of data and are working on.

I also want to draw your attention to partnerships. In the coming years and months, we will be working with a growing range of government agencies, philanthropies, and other public and private-sector entities that understand NSF’s mission and want to help us serve others more effectively. I expect that a number of these partnerships will help our directorate support new opportunities in which AERA members will be interested.

Moreover, our friends in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources do great work. While we were sad to see Jim Lewis depart, EHR has a great new Assistant Director, Karen Marrongelle. We will continue to collaborate with them on existing projects and seek new and dynamic ways to work together.

I want to close by thanking AERA and its members for the great work that it does. I have been able to learn more about you over the last five years, and I am grateful for the creativity, rigor, and passion that I see for your work. So many people benefit from what you do. You are a tremendous asset to the nation and the world.  

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