New norms for science

Since World War II, the United States has developed a powerful medical research enterprise centered on federal funding sources like the National Institutes of Health — often nicknamed “Big Science.” But the norms of Big Science will have to be adjusted if we’re going to help society’s most vulnerable people.

That was the conclusion we took away from the Islandwood Science in Nursing Roundtable, a three-day interdisciplinary gathering where we guided thinkers from nursing, social work, and public health as they reckoned with the social determinants of health. Working in teams, participants developed future scenarios for nursing science, targeting strategic milestones that would need to be achieved in coming decades if we are to address the American population’s most persistent inequities.

“Human subjects research seeks insights into standard models of human bodies and behaviors, just as we’ve always done with fruit flies and barnacles,” Andrew Benedict-Nelson wrote after the event. “But human beings aren’t barnacles — the people who are being left out of standard models matter. We need new ideas about how we can expand the vision of the sciences to include all the people they normally exclude.”

The event was part of our work developing the new graduate nursing program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and was guided by our research into the social determinants of health and professional education.