Here’s what academic social, behavioral, and economic scientists should be working on right now.

In a recent comment thread on the lack of relevance of academic social and behavioral science to the current crisis, Terry writes:

We face a once-in-a-lifetime event, and the existing literature gives mostly vapid-sounding guidance. Take this gem at the beginning of the article:

One of the central emotional responses during a pandemic is fear. Humans, like other animals, possess a set of defensive systems for combating ecological threats. Negative emotions resulting from threat can be contagious6, and fear can make threats appear more imminent.

But, the pandemic seems to be a huge opportunity for future work delving into the details of how the pandemic will change society and behavior. Forget the vague, overarching studies of generalities and focus instead on the myriad of details. Things like how the meat-packing industry is going to change its assembly line procedures. How will STD transmission change. Look carefully at working remotely, when does it work and not work. How can distance education be made better; how can the collegiate experience be replicated among distance learners. Etc.

I agree. It’s funny for me to be making this argument, given that I’m not doing this work myself. When I’m not writing, I’m doing statistical modeling. I’m not redesigning meat-packing assembly lines. But, yeah, I think Terry is right that there are lots of exciting applied problems for social science to be working on. Also, God is in every leaf of every tree, so if you really push hard to solve these applied problems, the theory will come along with it.