To: Henry Yang, Chancellor, UCSB A Prize Competition for Social/Behavioral Science

Thomas Scheff, Prof. Emeritus, Sociology

updated August 29, 2005

Innovate: A Prize Competition for Social/Behavioral  Science, by  Thomas Scheff

 One  reason for the current doldrums in the social and behavioral sciences is that the present system of funding disproportionately rewards conformity (“normal science”) over innovation (“revolutionary science”). Another is that funding and jobs flow through the separate disciplines, choking off interdisciplinarity. Although there are already many prize awards, virtually all of them are limited to a single discipline. Interdisciplinary prize competitions might create a new atmosphere for the most creative individuals in the various disciplines, sub-disciplines and schools of thought.

The encouragement of normal rather than creative science and scholarship is a natural outcome of mono-disciplinarity. As usually happens in all alliances, loyalty to one’s own group becomes more important than any other consideration. This circumstance encourages groupthink rather than creativity. Competition between individuals from all these self-perpetuating groups can help break up this pattern.

This idea is well established in the physical and life sciences. One existing version of a competition,, was established by the Lilly Corporation, a vast pharmaceutical house. It lists problems in chemistry and biology on its website, offering prizes for solutions ranging from 1 to 60k. As far as I can tell from reading the problems, they all seem to require interdisciplinary solutions.

The Innocentive prize money comes from the companies that provide the problems. The proposed organization would differ from Innocentive in the type and number of problems addressed, funding and size of prizes, and, to some extent, basic approach. Innocentive usually deals with under a hundred problems in biochemistry. The proposed prize contest might list hundreds of interdisciplinary issues.

In the Innocentive model, private funding is involved, all of it coming from manufacturers like Lilly. In the new organization, funding would probably come from non-profit foundations. In my experience, these foundations usually have an interest in one or more particular problems. Apparently these interests are not always served by the findings of their grantees.

The prize money would not be a grant, with all its complexity, but direct payment of cash with no strings, as in the Innocentive model. Many researchers lament that one dollar of unrestricted money is worth ten dollars of grant money. In the early stages, at least, prizes would probably not be large, say from one to five thousand dollars. These amounts would seem pitiably small as grants, but not as prizes. In addition to being unrestricted, the recognition that a prize would give might outweigh the value of token cash.

I recommend an approach somewhat broader than the one taken by Innocentive. The formulation of a problem in science and human affairs is often the most difficult step. The new organization would award prize money not only for solutions, but also for formulations of a problem that move it closer to solution. A formulation could win an award if it were a re-statement of a problem or alternatively, if it were a new problem. In professional journals and newsletters, and on its website, the new program would solicit problems and solutions from all over the world.

In the social and behavioral sciences prizes for innovation might have considerable impact. They are at the stage in which exact formulation of the problem may be the most crucial step in research. The challenge in these fields is to state a problem that can be studied systematically, on the one hand, but on the other, deals with issues of major importance. The most important element usually left out of the latter is some conceivable application to actual human problems. Most existing research in the social sciences meets one or the other of these criteria at best, but not both. There is a strong tendency in each of the social/behavioral sciences to study disciplinary, rather than social problems.

It is grave error, however, to be already committed to a certain point of view, theory or method before beginning research on a problem. The problem itself, rather than the researcher’s pre-existing allegiances, should determine the approach. This is basic reason that an interdisciplinary direction is urgently needed.

The self-perpetuating programs of the existing disciplines block the needed change, especially in the area of funding. Keith Oatley, a distinguished psychologist at the University of Toronto told me that he participates in a new interdisciplinary program there. This initiative has been reduced to an all voluntary group, since they have been unable to obtain funding.

This comment by Michael Billig (Social Science, U. of Nottingham ) further develops the theme.

A grant is given in advance of the work. Because of the emphasis on obtaining grants researchers have to commit themselves to doing a particular piece of research in a particular way before embarking on the project. The actual research is then has to proceed in predetermined lines. This is a form of mental strait-jacket that militates against innovation. Indeed, it often precludes innovation.

 A prize, on the other hand, rewards work that has already been done. It does not commission work in advance. But one my ask: why is a prize necessary, if it is not necessary for doing the work in the first place? The answer lies in the present career structure of academia, especially for young academics. All too often they fear the uncertainties of creative work - there is no guaranteed outcome. Indeed, there is often no tangible outcome, other than a publication. A prize from a respected body is evidence of professional esteem. It is a reward for taking a risky course that is all too often unrewarded. So the existence of a prize might be an encouragement and reward for those who take the risky path. The monetary size of the prize would then not be decisive (as it is for grants): it has a symbolic value. And as a symbol of success it also has a financial implication when the scholar seeks a new job or pay rise.

Six Examples of Possible Problems

1. The first example was provided by Bengt Starring, who has for many years researched issues that reach into all of the health and social/behavioral sciences. In Western countries research has shown that there is a health gap between different socio-economic groups. Those on the top live longer and have better health than those in the middle;  those in the middle live longer and have better health than those at the bottom. The health gradient seems to reflect differences in socio/psychological/economic conditions. (Starrin and his associates have published may studies suggesting that  shame may be an important component.) But the mechanisms behind it are far from clear. How can we (i) identify the mechanism behind the health gap and (ii) propose solutions for how to reduce it?

2. Theories of alienation seem to be important if we are to understand individuals and societies. These theories seek to describe the nature of social relationships not only between individuals, but also within and between societies. A theory of alienation seems to be required in order to understand the transition from traditional to modern societies, and perhaps to understand collective conflict. Alienation may also be involved in problems of health and illness, both at the individual and collective levels.

At this point the questions and concepts that make up theories of alienation have not been formulated in such a way that has led to testable hypotheses and replicable research designs, at least not at the level of societies. There has been considerable research on alienated attitudes among individuals, but the complex connections between these attitudes and alienation within institutions has not been adequately articulated. Perhaps a list of problems oriented toward creating testable theories of individual/collective alienation might be a first step toward breaking the impasse (Chapter 1, Scheff 2005).

3. The study of self-esteem, on the other hand, has a somewhat different barrier. It has excelled in creating both testable hypotheses and replicable research designs. There have been over fifteen thousand studies based on standardized self-esteem scales. No other topic has come anyone near attracting so many studies. Yet it is increasingly clear that there have been no substantial findings. Ten reviews of findings during the period 1963-2001 all agree that correlations have been “null, weak, or contradictory” (Scheff and Fearon 2004). In spite of the absence of results after 2001, these studies continue to grow,  like the sorcerer’s apprentice.

It would seem that either self-esteem is not important, or the problem has not been formulated well, and/or the method based on standard questionnaires is ineffective. Perhaps a prize award for the best formulation of a problem concerning the conceptualization of self-esteem and the method for studying it would be a first step toward untangling the impasse in this field.

4. Another topic of inquiry would be to deal with unsolved problems about the mix between social, legal, and economic institutions. Given recent events in the former Eastern bloc, it appears that we do not understand the kind of social and legal infrastructures needed to make a successful, or at least a non-destructive transition between a completely planned economy and a capitalist economy. This is understandable, partly because there is very little interaction between economists, on the one hand, and social science and legal researchers, on the other. They live in different worlds. Current interest in “mutual knowledge” in economics, for example, does not reference the considerable social science literature on consensus and mutual awareness.

5. How can we develop a taxonomy of emotions, rather than continue to use vernacular words? Using the color spectrum as an analogy, a vernacular word for an emotion, especially in English, often represents several different colors: depending on the context and the speaker, the word fear can mean the innate response to physical danger, but it can also mean other things, such as anticipation of rejection. Emotions cannot be studied in any systematic way until there is consensus on concepts for each of the primary emotions.

6. Little seems to be known about approaches to educating adults with respect to complex decisions, as in the field of voter education. One possibility would be to explore  displays of information like the one developed by the film critic website ( It has an ingenious graphic for representing many different reviews of a single film, at four levels of detail. 1. The average of the numeric score (from 0 to 100) of each of many reviews (usually more than fifty). 2. The score assigned by each critic. 3. A representative sentence or two from each review. 4. The full review by each critic. The first 3 levels can be seen at a single glance. To read a full review, the viewer can click on that review’s representative sentence.

In the more interesting films, there may be an enormous spread in the scores assigned: some critics will love a film, others might hate, or at least question, the same film. This situation exposes the viewer to what might be called a Koestler Machine, after that author’s The Act of Creation (1964). Koestler argued that most people are usually entrapped in a single point of view. Creative responses occur when they are forced to see a situation from clashing viewpoints. Voter education might follow this route, by exposure to skillfully crafted, but starkly opposing points of view.

Another possible application of the Metacritic graphic would be to start an interdisciplinary website for reviewing important books, a Koestler Machine for social/behavioral science. Such an application would be a whole project in itself.

Prize competitions in the social/behavioral sciences could shake things up, just as interdisciplinarity in natural sciences has done. Watson, a complete outsider in molecular biology, and Crick, an insider, together solved the problem of DNA.

New Sources of Input

Prizes, more than grants, might encourage interdisciplinary approaches in the social sciences. Typical social science grants are awarded within disciplines, and are judged by committees made up of members of a discipline. In some ways this practice has blocked progress, because most important social science problems seem to require integrating the perspectives and practices of different disciplines. The prize competition would encourage approaches to problems formulated within a discipline from outside the discipline. For example, sociological problems might be re-formulated or solved by economists, psychologists, etc, and even non-professionals.

One kind of involvement by non-professionals might come from members of the affected groups themselves. For example, researchers in the area of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have shown how little vulnerable groups make use of protection, and how difficult it has been to sell this idea to the groups, not only in Third World countries, but even in United States . It has been difficult for researchers to gain enough access to get the kind of detailed knowledge they would need to make suggestions that such groups might accept.

A similar gap in outsider knowledge might also be involved in the study of impassed conflicts, such as those the Middle East or Northern Ireland, In my own visit to Belfast, I found that researchers there had only intermittent and highly formalized contact with the actual combatants, and therefore little hope of understanding the details of the conflict or making suggestions for resolution that might find acceptance on both sides. Insiders in the affected groups, however, might have both the knowledge and the motive for making effective proposals toward workable solutions, if only anonymously.

Getting Started

The proposed organization would be run by a board of directors, chosen from a wide variety of disciplines for their experience in formulating and solving problems. This board would set up a review committee. A possible title for the website might be something like Innovate$. An organization like this one could fill a vital niche, finding original problems and/or solutions, at least different from the in-house grant approach of existing agencies. The prize competition would not replace the grant system, but would supplement it, and possibly enliven it. Other than the prize awards themselves, this project would require little funding, since most of the participants would be unpaid volunteers. Most granting agencies like to get more bang for the buck. 

The first step would be to contact those research administrators who have broad knowledge of the current interests of non-profit foundations and/or contacts with their decision-makers. At the same time, I would form a small working committee of colleagues from campuses with interest in the project.

The next step would be to contact foundations that might be interested. I would think that there might be a new foundation or a particularly adventurous one that would like the idea of establishing a new way of funding research. For one of the smaller foundations, the possibility of getting more research done for fewer dollars might be of interest, and of establishing this kind of innovation with a relatively small investment. In addition to establishing contact, feedback from these organizations might provide the kinds of details necessary to find a niche for the new organization.


Koestler, Arthur. 1964. The Action of Creation. London : Hutcheson.

Scheff, Thomas. 2005. Toward a New Microsociology: Building on Goffman’s Legacy. Boulder : Paradigm Publishers.

Scheff, Thomas and David Fearon. 2004. Social and Emotional Components in  Self-   Esteem. Journal of the Theory of Social Behavior. 34: 73-90

2532  PROBSOLVERa     Aug 23, 05