Columbia University

Faculty of Arts and Sciences

New directors appointed at the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy

An Interview with co-directors Thomas DiPrete and Matthew Connelly

David Madigan, Executive Vice President for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Alondra Nelson, Dean of Social Science, are pleased to announce that Professor Thomas DiPrete and Professor Matthew Connelly have been appointed as co-directors of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP) as of July 1, 2016. Thomas DiPrete is Giddings Professor of Sociology and Matthew Connelly is Professor of History.

 ISERP supports Columbia’s researchers, faculty, and students by providing grant administration and research and teaching resources to current and future generations of social scientists. As ISERP’s new co-directors, your respective interests and experiences will help to foster an innovative intellectual environment for the social sciences. What are your current research interests and how will these shape your roles as leaders of the Institute?

TDP: My current interests focus on social inequality as it unfolds over the life course, and overlaps with a number of areas of social science inquiry.  My ongoing work on educational performance, persistence, and attainment involves a special focus on gender and racial inequality.  My work on labor markets includes a segregation-analytic approach to the similar and different ways that educational outcomes (fields of study and level of attainment) connect to the occupational structure in the U.S., several European countries, Brazil, and Australia, and I am engaged in an historical analysis of the evolution of these linkages in Germany and France over the past 50 years.  My research on executive compensation involves data about corporate compensation practices harvested from thousands of corporate reports to the SEC and network analysis of the compensation network defined by the compensation comparisons asserted by the firms in these reports. I have recently begun a collaborative project on polygenic scores and their utility for reducing bias in the estimation of environmental and behavioral factors on life course outcomes.  Finally, I am one of the lead investigators (with Rich Friesner and Ann McDermott in the Department of Chemistry) of a project recently funded by the Gates Foundation to develop innovative, face-to-face and technology-based strategies to improve the effectiveness of tutoring of low-income, disadvantaged secondary school students in order to improve their learning outcomes.

MC:  I work in contemporary international and global history, with a focus on the problems associated with unaccountable power -- whether in the form of empires, expert communities, or official secrecy. Lately, I have focused on developing new models for social science research, seeking to promote collaboration across disciplines and with both graduate and undergraduate students. This included a four-year project researching how big institutions predict and prepare for catastrophic threats, including global warming, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. More recently, I am developing new methods for doing history in the age of “big data” -- especially difficult when so much of the data is secret. With support from the MacArthur Foundation and the National Science Foundation, I founded History-Lab, a team of data scientists and social scientists who have amassed the largest database of declassified documents in the world. The goal is not only to recreate the history of official secrecy, but also to create technology that will help governments meet their legal mandates to maximize transparency while more clearly identifying information that really does require safe-keeping.

MC and TDP:  We both have long histories at Columbia -- Tom received his Ph.D. from the sociology department in 1978, and Matt graduated from Columbia College in 1990. We share a commitment to the continual strengthening of the research environment and the vibrancy of the intellectual community defined by the Columbia social science departments. Both of us have a strong commitment to multidisciplinary research, as shown by our history of collaborating with scholars from other social science and related disciplines, including computer science, economics, education, political science, public health, statistics, and social work.  We also have a commitment to, and respect for, social science research conducted using a variety of both quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches.

Historically, ISERP has pushed the boundaries of the social sciences by encouraging interdisciplinary research and programming that speaks to the needs of the growing social science community at Columbia, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty. How do you envision that the Institute will support the core work of the social science disciplines while also continuing to spur collaboration and innovative intellectual exchange?

MC and TDP:  ISERP is supporting the core work of the social science disciplines in several important ways.  It is the principal provider of grant preparation and administration services in the social sciences and also in SIPA.  It provides block grants to the social science departments for use in supporting broad programmatic needs.  It administers the highly successful Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences (QMSS) MA program.  It is providing support for a number of disciplinary and interdisciplinary conferences and workshops. This year ISERP will again host a competition for financial support of conferences, three-year thematic workshops, and seed grants. And it is also launching a new initiative: a working group on computational social science, with regular lunch meetings and monthly talks. It will initially focus on the politics and ethics of data science research on social phenomena, whether in academia, government, or the private sector. But participating faculty will also take up the question of how ISERP can best meet the practical needs of the many Columbia researchers who are intensifying work in this area.

ISERP now has a strong and effective governance structure that involves representatives of all the social science departments and SIPA. They meet as an executive committee several times over the course of the year, oversee ISERP activities and budgets, and provide feedback and guidance to the co-directors. Finally, ISERP also has office and research space that it makes available to research groups and to departments through a competitive process overseen by the co-directors and the executive committee, with first priority given to projects funded by ISERP-administered grants.

ISERP sponsors a range of programs, conferences, workshops, and other events for audiences made up of both the Columbia community and the general public. How do you intend to encourage a space for research, discussion, and collaboration among scholars, the broader public, and policymakers?

MC and TDP:  ISERP has a storied past, going back to the Bureau of Applied Social Research, established in 1944 by Paul F. Lazarsfeld, one of the leading sociologists of the 20th century, and the Lazarsfeld Center for the Social Sciences, which was founded in 1978 as the successor organization to the Bureau. ISERP has long been a major source of support for social science research, workshops, and conferences. Many faculty started their work at Columbia with ISERP seed grants.

We are honored to be carrying on that great tradition, and we want to increase the visibility and recognition of ISERP across campus and beyond. It should be a locus for discussion, collaboration, and communication of the research and ideas of Columbia’s social science community to policymakers and the broader public. In addition to the new working group on computational social science, we are considering the inauguration of a high-profile lecture series, more improvements to the ISERP web site, and a close partnership with the Dean of Social Science and the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. Our goal is not just to make ISERP a center for social science second to none, it is to increase the strength, visibility, and salience of Columbia research, both nationally and globally.