Fay Lomax Cook is the Academy’s new Distinguished Visiting Fellow, succeeding Renée Landers, who continues to serve as Vice Chair of the Board. Cook will help guide policy activities and work closely with the Academy’s policy teams. An Academy Member since 1990, Cook spoke at the Academy’s first policy conference, “Social Security and the Budget,” in 1988. We sat down with her to learn more about how she hopes to contribute during her Fellowship year. 


Q: Do you have a priority in mind as you start your Fellowship?

I’m really looking forward to learning about all the things the Academy is working on and contributing ideas about how we can tell academics, policymakers, practitioners, the public, and the press about that work. I think it starts with expanding outreach in whatever ways we can.

At Northwestern University, I was director of the Institute for Policy Research for 16 years, and as such I thought it was important that our research and reports were distributed to a wide audience and that the media picked up on what we were doing. Similarly, I think the Academy does important work and I want to do all I can to help make sure the media covers it.  


Q: How would you implement your idea to expand communications and outreach? 

One suggestion is to have Academy Members write op-eds for their local newspapers, using our research and reports as framing devices to make their own points about the importance of social insurance.

The Academy itself cannot advocate any particular position, but Members can use our research findings to make a point based on what the research tells us about the importance of social insurance and how it makes significant contributions to people throughout their life course.

The current report on Workers’ Compensation (WC) is a good example.  I attended the recent WC Data Panel meeting, which brought Members and WC experts from around the country to the Academy’s office in DC. Each of the Data Panel members could write something for their local newspaper about Workers’ Compensation in their state, using information from the Academy’s WC report as the jumping off point—as the hook. The hook would be this report and what’s new, what’s different this year, the emerging trends and how that affects workers and employers.  

It may seem an obvious thing to do, but the suggestion needs to be made and encouragement needs to be given. I’m not sure I’m the right person to do it, but I can certainly work with CEO Bill Arnone, the staff, and the Members, to help op-eds get written.


Q: What about participation in the ongoing news cycle around Medicare?

Of course, a topic in the news every day is possible changes to Medicare — a topic the Academy will cover with a forthcoming report from the Medicare Eligibility Study Panel and its upcoming conference on Health Care Coverage and Costs: Assessing Medicare-Based Approaches.

There’s a lot of confusion about what Medicare for All means. The Academy is trying to clarify the options and the different connotations. There’s a lot of room for clarification and the Academy is in a great position to offer those clarifications, as Bill Arnone did recently in an Associated Press story.

We might also achieve greater visibility in the press by considering a program like the one that the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) has begun. When the GSA has its Annual Scientific Meeting each year, it brings together journalists in the area of aging and gives them brief updates on research that’s being presented, allowing them the opportunity to interview the scientists for whatever “hook” on the research might be relevant to issues of the day. We could initiate something like that, by sending special invitations to journalists for separate meetings for them that will provide highlights of the health care discussions that will be presented at the conference. This would be especially useful for journalists who can’t afford to sit through two days of presentations.


Q: How did your career begin?

I have a PhD from the University of Chicago in social policy, from the School of Social Service Administration. My dissertation was titled, Who Should be Helped? Public Support for Social Services, which got published as a book. Because of that book, the Ford Foundation asked me to be on a committee on the future of the welfare state. I received funding from them to do a study of public support for social programs, which included a national survey of the general public and members of Congress. That research resulted in a book titled Support for the American Welfare State: Views of Congress and the Public.

What I learned is that people seem to have very positive views of the concept of social insurance—which is protection against risks. We all experience risks in our lives and social insurance programs protect against those risks, a concept that makes a lot of sense to people.


Q: Most people today are not familiar with the term “social insurance”; have times changed?

I didn’t ask people about social insurance per se, but rather about specific programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Insurance. It’s important for more people–policymakers, the general public, practitioners, and the media—to learn the facts about these programs and their effects on people. Although my research has shown that the public is very supportive of social insurance programs, we can’t rest on that support. We have to continue to tell the story of the importance of social insurance and show its positive effects on people throughout the life course. 


More about Fay Lomax Cook

Fay Lomax Cook is professor emerita of human development and social policy at Northwestern University and faculty fellow of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR) where she served as director for 16 years. From 2014 to 2018, Cook was Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and headed the Directorate of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE). Her research focuses on the interrelationships between public opinion and social policy, the politics of public policy, public deliberation, and the dynamics of public support for programs for older Americans, particularly Social Security.

Cook has been a visiting scholar at Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po); president of the Gerontological Society of America; a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences; and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation. She has also been a member of the Expert Panel on Performance Outcome Measurement, U.S. Administration on Aging; a member of the Ford Foundation's research advisory committee on Social Welfare Policy and the American Future; a scientific consultant to the National Institute on Aging; and a member of the North American Program Committee for the International Congress on Gerontology.

The author or co-author of many scholarly articles and book chapters, Cook has written five books, including most recently Talking Together: Public Deliberation and Political Participation in America, with Lawrence Jacobs and Michael Delli Carpini. She has been invited to give several keynote addresses about her work, including at an international conference on Aging and Social Security sponsored by Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, and at an international conference on the dynamics of citizenship in Stockholm, Sweden. 

While at NSF, Cook served as co-chair for the White House National Science and Technology Council's interagency Social and Behavioral Sciences Subcommittee of the Committee on Science and as co-chair of the Federal interagency committee to assess research needs related to the nation’s opioid crisis. She serves on the Visiting Committee of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).

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