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OPINION: Let’s have more support for the social sciences

Graphic courtesy of University of Washington.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

A while ago, in these pages, we ran an article about a plan to make the Brooklyn Tech Triangle (DUMBO-Navy Yard-Downtown) the biggest tech hub in the city, overtaking California’s Silicon Valley.

The plan included re-doing office space with fiber-optic wiring, establishing new business incubators, collaborations between universities and tech firms, and creating amenities such as new pathways, restaurants, bike lanes, bus service and more.  

Not expressly stated in the press conference, but closely related, is the upcoming conversion of the old MTA building at 370 Jay St. into a high-tech applied sciences school sponsored by NYU-Poly.

All in all, according to one of the organizers of the press conference, the Tech Triangle area is expected to support 19,000 tech-related jobs and 43,000 indirect jobs within two years.

I think this is a good thing – but it’s not the only thing. When the government and business “powers that be” can rest for a few minutes from pouring money and support into technology, why not have a similar effort to boost the social sciences?

Yes, that’s right. The social sciences, which have been around forever. I can just see someone asking, “What are the concrete rewards of someone studying sociology, history or political science?”

Well, look at all the problems of the world and the nation. People talk about the persistence of poverty in urban neighborhoods and rural hinterlands. If any solution is at hand, it will most likely come from sociologists and social workers.

Other people point to the ineffectiveness of state government, the persistence of the filibuster in Congress, how important bills can get bogged down in committees and so on. If there is any real reform in politics, it is likely to begin at political science departments at the universities.

Or maybe you’re worried about the sluggish economy, slow job growth, low interest rates and why Wall Street growth isn’t reflected in the general economy. If you’re preoccupied with these issues, you’ll have to turn to economists for answers.

Cultural anthropology? Well, the U.S. sends ambassadors all over the world. Many, perhaps most, American embassies are in non-Western nations. If U.S. diplomats want to make friends with local leaders, they have to study the beliefs, habits and customs of the local people.

But what about history? you ask. Surely, that’s frivolous – it already happened! Yes it did, but what happened once can happen again. If the government had studied the history of Iraq before we invaded that country, we wouldn’t have been so shocked when the moment after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, various factions started fighting each other in the streets.

I submit that the social sciences are as necessary to the development of society as is technology. However, their importance often gets lost in the pervasive cry of “We need more people proficient in math!” or “We need universal broadband access!”

By all means, let’s have more broadband access, more high-tech incubators, more schools of applied technology. Technology can save lives – look at the ways medical technology, such as laparoscopic surgery, has helped people. It can also save people from endless drudgery – look at the way computerized drafting has replaced what we used to call “mechanical drawing.”

But let’s have some support for the social sciences, too. No, they won’t bring in lots of jobs in the near future. But in the long run they will improve the quality of life on this planet.

August 5, 2013 - 3:00pm


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