Team Receives DARPA Support to Develop ‘Next Generation’ Social Science

November 10, 2016

A scientific team led by Penn faculty has received an award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop and validate reproducible methods for studying human social behavior.

DARPA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense that invests in breakthrough technologies to support national security. The award is part of DARPA’s new Next Generation Social Science program, or NGS2, which aims to revolutionize the speed, scale, and rigor with which social science is performed. The grant provides the multi-disciplinary team with $2.95 million for two years, with a possible additional $2.3 million for a subsequent one-and-a-half years, dependent on progress, to further the goals of the NGS2 program, a key one being to develop a deeper understanding of the factors that drive the emergence or collapse of collective identity in human populations.

Joshua B. Plotkin, a biology professor with secondary appointments in the Department of Mathematics and the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Computer and Information Science Department, will lead the project. His colleagues in the effort are Erol Akçay, an assistant professor of biology at Penn; David Rand of Yale University; Simon Levin of Princeton University; Johan Bollen of Indiana University; and Alexander Stewart of University College London.

“Many global trends, including conflicts among non-state groups and the growing influence of social media, point to the importance of social science for understanding the drivers of social and national stability,” Plotkin says. “We are excited about developing and applying cutting-edge science and technology to help social science become an even more predictive field and, in particular, to better understand the phenomenon of collective identity.”

NGS2 also serves as a response to the so-called “reproducibility crisis” in the sciences, and the social sciences in particular, in which published findings have failed to be corroborated by follow-up studies. The program’s interest in applying rigorous methods to the social sciences aligns with a strategic strength of Penn Arts and Sciences, an emphasis on quantitative explorations of evolving systems.

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