Design by Reid Graham

The University of Michigan was ranked the top-funded institution in social science research in the U.S., according to the Fiscal Year 2020 Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey recently released by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The survey measures the annual research and development (R&D) spending by academic institutions across all academic disciplines. 

Higher education R&D expenditures increased 3.3% from the previous fiscal year to $86.4 billion in total, according to the NSF report. Out of the 915 universities and colleges included in the survey, the University’s Ann Arbor campus ranked second in FY 2020 R&D expenditures in all fields.

Across all social science areas, the University topped the list with a $187 million R&D expenditure. It was also placed in the top 10 in five of the six social science subfields. 

The University is home to Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic social science survey and research organization. Dr. Kathleen Cagney, director of ISR, said the way funding works in ISR is entrepreneurial-like. ISR researchers receive grants from different agencies and foundations, rather than having funds be allocated by a committee. 

“Researchers come together and they develop their own research programs,” Cagney said. “They will write lots of different types of grants … that go to places like the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other agencies.”  

Cagney also emphasized ISR’s role in creating the environment that values multidisciplinary research.

“One thing that makes (the University) distinctive (is) to have so many social science disciplines that are engaging in novel and cutting-edge research,” Cagney said. “The intersection of disciplines (is) where novel research emerges.”

To get an idea of what kind of social science research is being done at the University, The Michigan Daily sat down with three social researchers to discuss their work and contributions to the field. 

Getting older in America

Funded by the National Institute of Aging and the Social Security Administration, the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) is a longitudinal study that collects survey data from a sample of approximately 20,000 people over the age of 50 in America every two years to understand the challenges and effects of aging. The survey asks participants about a wide range of topics from income, health, employment and lifestyle factors — all data that can be used for aging research. With high scientific productivity, HRS is now a model for longitudinal studies around the world.

David Weir, director of HRS, said the study began in 1992 in an effort to combine economic and health information of elderly population to help inform older generations.

“Our job is not to write the paper about the elderly,” Weir said. “Our job is to collect data and get it out for other people to use.”

Weir said HRS has maintained funding for 30 years, which is impressive for any longitudinal study. 

“The longitudinal studies often go for five to 10 years and that’s it,” Weir said. “So to go 30 years is pretty unique and to do that, we have to have very innovative applications every time.”

Minority representation in the study is one area Weir said the HRS is focused on, especially since many of these groups are underrepresented in social science research.

“One of the things that we’ve become really valuable for is the representation of Blacks and Hispanics,” Weir said. “A lot of NIH studies don’t have much representation of those groups and they’re definitely understudied in terms of biomedical research. So that’s one of our strengths … (and) so we have innovations around adding different cohorts of minority traditional minority disciplines.”

HRS also uses innovative strategies to collect genetic information for quantitative analysis. Weir said the DNA collection can be used to assess general risks for diabetes, alcoholism and mental illness, among other factors.

“What we are finding is that when you look across the whole genome, millions of pieces of information, you can find clusters of things that do predict higher risk,” Weir said. “So in terms of the connection of genetics to social science, we’re not (saying) ‘Here’s the gene for diabetes’, but we can give you a score based on that person’s whole genome of their relative risk of developing (the disease).”

Weir added that collaboration among epidemiologists, psychologists and other researchers to analyze data across different disciplines is vital to the project. Weir said that being at the University of Michigan gives the study an advantage to work with highly experienced researchers from various fields.

“For a study like ours, which is multidisciplinary, we’ve got psychology, economics, epidemiology, sociology, medicine … being in a place that’s good at so many different things gives us a lot to draw,” Weir said.

Weir also said that a study like HRS is important because it provides the world with data on how human health can be impacted by different global events, like the pandemic or the Great Recession

“(In 2010), we’ve just been through the Great Recession and people have had all these economic difficulties,” Weir said. “Whenever something big happens, you want to know the before and after.”

Envisioning a better world 

Founded in 2019, the Stone Center for Inequality Dynamics (CID) is an interdisciplinary hub for foundational research on social inequality. As a campus-wide unit, CID partners with the College of LSA and ISR to bring together multidisciplinary teams to address inequality issues.

Fabian Pfeffer, the director of CID, said different specialized teams approach research on inequality from different perspectives but as a whole generate impressive work together.

“Both economics and sociology have an interest in inequality, but they approach the topic often with different mindsets,” Pfeffer said. “There’s lots of really interesting work that is generated at the frontiers of two or multiple disciplines.” 

One distinctive way CID approaches the issue of inequality is to think beyond the existing solutions, Pfeffer said. One project in the CID called Envisioning Real Utopias was created in collaboration with the U-M Arts Initiative and aims to “propose detailed versions of alternative social arrangements geared at increasing human flourishing.” The pilot project plans to produce one video documentary to present a Real Utopia proposal addressing urgent societal problems such as inequality in housing and wealth. 

“We’re using methods from social science to assess how realistic utopia is and from arts to envision … something that’s not here already,” Pfeffer said. “As social scientists, we have responsibilities to engage in this kind of vision.”

Pfeffer said that the collaboration between CID and the U-M Arts Initiative allowed this project to extend and develop beyond the typical techniques of social science research. The project pairs techniques from the social sciences with the arts to envision real solutions, according to Pfeffer.

“We also want to go slightly beyond what’s currently being done in most of the social sciences, around inequality, which is diagnosing the problem, describing it, critiquing it, that’s what we classically do,” Pfeffer said. “But I think we want to go beyond that and also offer alternatives and think about what a different world would look like. And not just think about that, but also bring the tools that we have from the social sciences to study their potential feasibility.” 

Pfeffer added that research can also impact policy debates, such as the question of cancelling student debt

“CID is future-oriented not just because it thinks about the future but also because it may take a long time for us to enter some of these debates,” Pfeffer said. “Right now, it seems like there is a historical moment within a pandemic, where lots of people are rethinking how our society works … So now is the time you can bring up big proposals.”

CID also has a particular interest in wealth inequality, something Pfeffer felt is less studied than income inequality. Pfeffer said people sometimes use income and wealth interchangeably, but the two terms are conceptually and empirically different. 

“Income is a flow of resources … wealth is a stock,” Pfeffer said. “Wealth is much more unequally distributed and has much larger racial gaps.” 

One motivation to study wealth inequality is the urgency to address racial inequality, given that both issues are closely tied to one another, Pfeffer said.

“Wealth is a reflection of long standing patterns of discrimination,” Pfeffer said. “We see some of the long arm of history today reflected in the wealth structure. But at the same time, we also have ongoing processes of institutional racism, that maintain racial wealth gaps, so wealth is interesting if you’re interested in racial inequality for that reason, too, because it’s so obvious that it has both the imprint of long term history and the imprint of ongoing processes of discrimination.”

He added that the reason wealth inequality has been studied less is because it’s harder to obtain the data. That being said, Pfeffer said the CID has the unique opportunity to work in tandem with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to factor in wealth data to their research .The Wealth and Mobility Study in CID is one example. Through direct access to individual-and population-level IRS tax records, the study creates proxy measures of wealth holdings of all U.S. taxpayers and analyzes inequality and intergenerational mobility of wealth. 

“Very few people have access to that kind of highly protected data,” Pfeffer said. “So we’re very fortunate and happy that we can really find out more about this topic based on that access.”

A pioneer in data sharing 

Celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2022, the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research serves as an open data library for social science research. The consortium was founded by researchers in policy and started as a data source for the American National Election Studies in partnership with 22 universities, according to Margaret Levenstein, the director of ICPSR. Resources and data from the archive were made available to the academic institutions and research organizations, which was considered unique when it was first founded. 

Levenstein said ICPSR is the largest social science data sharing collection to date. Members of ICPSR — nearly 800 institutions — have access to over 16,000 studies and 100,000 publications. 

“We are now the largest social science collection of social science data in the world,” Levenstein said. “When somebody creates data, they can put it at ICPSR and it’s not just kept for themselves, it’s shared with a broader research community to advance social science research.”

What enables data sharing is the variable database, which allows researchers to search datasets that have variables they are interested in, Levenstein said. 

“The social science variables database has millions of variables in it,” Levenstein said. “So for any concept that people are interested in studying, you can find relevant data and then look to see which of those studies are the best for the question.”

Levenstein said the data sharing culture varies in different fields. People are often concerned about protecting confidentiality particularly in clinical studies, but Levenstein said ICPSR allows for the access of data without breaching patient confidentiality. 

“So one of the things that ICPSR is actually a leader (in) …  is making sure that we find, and that we make available, secure ways for people to access confidential data,” Levenstein said. 

Levenstein said data sharing allows researchers to learn more about their questions and creates trust with the public.

“We can only (learn as much as possible from the data) if we have researchers who have different perspectives who come to the data and ask different questions, or who bring a … different angle,” Levenstein said. “And the only way that we can get the public to trust research is by being transparent. And part of that transparency is making the data available.”

Daily Staff Reporter Jingqi Zhu can be reached at