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With Cornell grants, faculty launch social sciences research

By: Susan Kelley,  Cornell Chronicle
Wed, 11/14/2018

How will the rise in sea levels due to climate change affect the fiscal health of U.S. cities? Can virtual reality help architects “try out” a building’s design before construction has even started? How do social processes affect artificial intelligence in high-stakes areas such as sentencing for criminals and job applications? And why do so many people find informal conversation so stressful despite its many benefits? 

These are a few of the questions Cornell’s social science faculty are exploring this fall, thanks to funding from the Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS). The ISS’s Fall 2018 Small Grant Awards are designed to support faculty as they develop new research and seek external funding.

For example, Nicolas Ziebarth, associate professor of policy analysis and management, received a $200,000 award in 2017 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to continue research seeded by the ISS in 2015 on the impact of U.S. sick pay mandates on areas including absenteeism at work and the spread of diseases. His recently published research on the topic includes “The Pros and Cons of Sick Pay Schemes” in Journal of Public Economics, which received a 2018 German Health Economics Science Award.

Among this fall’s grant recipients is Linda Shi, assistant professor of city and regional planning, will conduct one of the first studies to consider the fiscal dimensions of sea level rise due to climate change. She’ll look at how fiscal policy – particularly land-based municipal finance – affects local exposure to the impacts of sea level rise and local governments’ capacity to adapt.

In the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Assistant Professor Saleh Kalantari will develop a prototype mobile brain-body imaging system that will monitor a person’s physical and conscious responses as they use virtual reality to “move” within architectural designs. This will allow architects and designers to get crucial feedback on their plans for buildings and resolve problems before investing in construction.

Karen Levy, assistant professor in the Department of Information Science, will organize a multidisciplinary conference focusing on understanding high-stakes human encounters with artificial intelligence. The real-world impact of AI depends on the sociotechnical context, such as how a system’s predictions are (or aren’t) integrated into the processes, policies and institutions that surround it. The aim is to find new ways of inquiring into the impacts of AI and of converting those insights into changes in practice.

And Tom Gilovich, the Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology, will conduct studies with the goal of helping to reduce the stress many people feel about the prospect of informal conversation with people outside their immediate families and close social networks.

Other projects include: