DARPA Support for Penn-led Team to Develop ‘Next Generation’ Social Science

A scientific team led by the University of Pennsylvania 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 US 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 Penn-led, 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 professor in the School of Arts & Sciences’ department of biology, with secondary appointments in the department of mathematics and the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s computer & 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,” Dr. Plotkin said. “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 & Sciences, an emphasis on quantitative explorations of evolving systems.

The proposal by Dr. Plotkin and colleagues will encompass three scales of methods development and experimentation. On one level, the team will use game theory and evolutionary modeling to predict what factors govern group behaviors such as cooperation. The researchers will also put game theory into action, recruiting participants to play in-lab and online games in order to test model predictions for what conditions encourage a group to act as a cohesive whole. Finally, the research team will take advantage of massive data sets from such sources as Twitter to identify how social norms and collective identities arise and change over time in the real world.

“Our project is ambitious because it spans from mechanistic mathematical models to online experiments to observational studies of unfiltered social interactions,” Dr. Plotkin said. “We have assembled a group of researchers, drawn from a wide range of disciplines who all share a desire to help develop quantitative methods in the social sciences.”

Because the research involves studies on human subjects, it will be subject to IRB and human research protection offices’ review. Study subjects will be informed, and consenting volunteers and data will be de-identified to protect their privacy.

The DARPA award is structured with reproducibility built in: Each of the DARPA-funded teams, after developing and testing its own models and hypotheses in the first phase of the project, will then cross-validate each other’s predictions in a second phase using its own study subjects. In addition, applying a relatively new practice in the social sciences, the researchers will pre-register all of their experimental plans in advance of performing them.

This process, which requires laying out the teams’ hypotheses, protocols and planned analytical techniques, will help ensure a proper, unbiased interpretation of results.

“This DARPA program will hopefully usher in a new research cycle of mechanistic modelling and hypothesis testing to make a predictive science of social phenomena,” Dr. Plotkin said.