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Social Science, Data Science, and Jobs in the 21st Century

Social science, Data Science, and Jobs in the 21st Century

An essay by Odum Director Thomas M. Carsey
What are the skills and training necessary for workers in a rapidly changing job environment? How must our education system in the United States adapt to provide this training? A recent study published by the Pew Research Center asked these questions of 1408 technologists, scholars, practitioners, strategic thinkers, and education leaders ( Several themes emerged from the study. I want to emphasize three of them.

First, advances in technology and artificial intelligence driven by data science are rapidly changing the economy. The study lists dozens of jobs that might be replaced or significantly augmented by technology in the very near future. The list includes dermatologists, lawyers, financial reporters and border patrol agents. The impact of data science and data-driven decision-making will be felt in nearly every profession. Developing skills and data science and programming are and will continue to be essential.

Second, a dominant theme in the report is that the skills that will be in the highest demand are those not easily replaced by computer algorithms and artificial intelligence. These skills include creativity, multidisciplinary thinking, empathy, critical/analytical thinking, communication, and the ability to understand human behavior, motivation, and group interaction. The report emphasizes the value of traditional residential colleges in providing opportunities for students to learn how to interact with and work with each other. I would emphasize that many of these skills are taught in the social sciences.

In fact, the social sciences are devoted to understanding individual and group motivations, behaviors, and outcomes. Developing an understanding of human behavior goes deeper than simply developing skills. That deeper understanding allows people to adapt as circumstances change. In short, this report tells me not only that data science is extremely important, but that the social sciences are equally or potentially even more important as people prepare for their place in the modern economy.

Third, the report emphasizes a need for diversity in learning platforms and mechanisms to provide lifelong learning. As noted, the report emphasizes the continued value of the traditional college degree. However, the report stresses the need for people to be able to learn in formats other than the standard semester long course. This includes online training, self-paced training, workshops and modular training, and experiential learning.

As I read this report, I thought about what it means for the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science here at UNC. We serve the University by providing core infrastructure and support for social science research, broadly defined. That includes cyber, data, and, most importantly, human infrastructure. We conduct research ourselves, partner with others, and provide training and consulting for still more researchers ranging from students who are just getting started to senior faculty with 30+ years of experience. We embrace multiple modes of delivering training. We have also been among the campus leaders in advancing data science. I remain convinced of the value of continuing to integrate data science and social science. As this report makes clear, both fields of study stand to gain from the other through this interaction.

I have said repeatedly that the so-called “Big Data” revolution became truly revolutionary when the data became about people. The Pew study reinforces this view, and provides a rationale for advancing the social sciences in tandem with data science. the opportunities provided by the confluence of data science and social science bodes well for the future of the Odum Institute. This is a great time to be a social scientist!

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