Introduction to special issue

Science Looks at Life

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Science  30 Jun 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5782, pp. 1893
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5782.1893

What happens when researchers apply the discipline of science to the rich—often chaotic—ferment of our lives? This issue provides a sampling of provocative insights by social scientists studying humans at different stages of the life cycle. We thank Robert Axelrod, William Butz, and Barbara Torrey, who aided us in this project, part of an ongoing program of encouraging the best in the social sciences.

Where do the data come from? Butz and Torrey (p. 1898) introduce the special section by describing new technologies and some of the challenges that remain in their application. Horizons are being opened through use of the Internet, geographical information systems, and biomarkers. Genetics is providing new insights into the etiology of our political views, according to Kinder (p. 1905), who describes evidence that we are hard-wired for some of our political tendencies, although complex changes occur throughout life.

Helping children grow and develop is something that cuts to the heart of every community. Heckman (p. 1900) believes that the United States is not spending its child education money wisely—that we spend too little at critical points in child development before kindergarten and too much in “second-chance” efforts when interventions have become costly and ineffective. Although Richter (p. 1902) also considers early involvement to be crucial, she notes that even children who have lived in poverty and witnessed or experienced violence in South Africa often find whatever opportunities are available to become healthy, caring members of society.

What is important in life, and would we know it if we saw it? Measuring happiness or satisfaction is not the same as measuring height; it changes depending on what we are focusing on at the time (Kahneman et al., p. 1908). Our perceptions also tend to change as we grow older (or have other reasons to feel that the time left to us is shrinking and finite); this can lead us to devote more energy to strengthening current bonds and less to striking out on new adventures (Carstensen, p. 1913). We are seeing a shift in the proportions of young and old in many parts of the world. A News story by Balter (p. 1894) explores declines in human fertility and how fretful governments are responding. Vaupel and Loichinger (p. 1911), in their analysis of changing age demographics in Europe, describe a way to change the balance between family and work that will strike a responsive chord in many working parents.

Without insights from the social sciences, technological breakthroughs may never be translated into real-world solutions, as described in the Editorial by Lane (p. 1847). Social sciences are integrated into many parts of Science, in addition to research, as in ScienceCareers.org, which has a portal devoted to social, behavioral, and economic sciences. This week, Science Careers is focusing on the decision, risk, and management sciences. A major avenue of scholarship for social scientists is the book, and the Books section (p. 1876) contains reviews of three political science-related offerings. As a further resource, readers should note the Science of Aging Knowledge Environment (SAGE KE), which has for the past 5 years provided a variety of views on aging, including a Perspective this week on changing work patterns (Levine et al.).

Rarely has a group of papers been so engaging and stimulating as this foray into the frontiers of the social sciences. We hope the experience will be one of many.

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