A Tribute to Tora K. Bikson, PhD
Written by Susan G. Straus
With the sudden death of Tora K. Bikson on February 1, 2013, the RAND Corporation has lost a superb researcher and a wonderful colleague, while the world has lost a pioneer in research on information and communication technology adoption and one of its foremost experts on social and behavioral research ethics.
A senior behavioral scientist at RAND since 1974, Tora was a stellar researcher with an enormous body of published work. Since 1980, Tora’s research focused on properties of advancing information technologies and organizational change in varied user contexts, addressing topics such as the successful incorporation of innovative tools into ongoing activities, how new work media influence group structures, interaction processes, tasks, user satisfaction, and social outcomes, and how policy helps promote the full utilization of innovation in organizations. She pursued these questions as Principal Investigator for projects funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the United Nations, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, The Markle Foundation, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and other institutions. “Tora was a pioneer in sensitizing the research community, and the world, for that matter, to the impact of technology on different groups in society. Her early work on the digital divide changed the way we thought about the Internet and its promise. She continually hit on important problems of technology in society—citizen communications, privacy, global connectivity, technology for retired people, and computer-mediated work,” said Sara Kiesler, Hillman Professor of Computer Science and Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. Tora also served on task forces, panels, planning committees, and boards concerned with information technology for the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Public Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, National Science Foundation, Social Science Research Council, and UN Information Systems Coordinating Committee, among others.
Tora chaired the Human Subjects Protection Committee (HSPC), RAND’s institutional review board for more than 25 years, and she was a leading national figure on ethical issues involving human participants in social science research. While much of the discussion in the United States about human subjects protection involves biomedical research, Tora was among a group of advocates who work to highlight the unique ethical issues over how to protect individuals who take part in social and behavioral science research. “Tora Bikson was an advocate for the highest ethical standards in social and behavioral science research, and she worked tirelessly to assure that the rights of people involved in research were respected,” Michael D. Rich, president and CEO of RAND, said in a statement. Tora served on a panel organized by the National Research Council that produced an influential report in 2003 that recommended ways to strengthen protections for human subjects in social science research. “She was highly regarded and admired in this area of inquiry,” said Felice J. Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association. “One of her special qualities was how well she was grounded in both the complex issues of human subjects protection and the needs of scientific researchers.”
Among Tora’s other groundbreaking endeavors was helping to organize a 2007 workshop that examined ethical principles in socio-behavioral research on terrorism. Tora’s forward-thinking efforts, combined with her expertise and skill in leading the HSPC, enabled RAND to do trailblazing studies involving such vulnerable populations as children, the homeless, victims of crimes, the financially disadvantaged, prostitutes, prisoners, drug dealers, and terrorists, and on such intimate and sensitive issues as abuse, marriage, illicit substance use, criminal violence, depression, financial decisionmaking, and sexual behavior.
Tora’s colleagues describe her as brilliant, a remarkable scholar who thought expansively and deeply about important issues and expressed her ideas eloquently and with stunning clarity. As one of her colleagues, Joy Moini remarked, “She had such an amazing ability to turn a problem or question inside out, shift it all around, reorganize it and ask a much better set of questions.” In addition to the respect her research earned her among her colleagues, Tora was known as a mentor and friend who enriched the lives of many, both professionally and personally. She was generous with her time and ideas and was extraordinarily supportive of other researchers, particular junior colleagues and women. “Know that it is upon her shoulders that countless women have stood to get their heads through the glass ceilings that existed before she led the way,” said Bill Mautner, a bio-physicist and long-time associate of Tora’s.
Tora received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Missouri (Columbia) and a doctorate in psychology from UCLA. She taught at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, Institute Theseus in southern France, the University of Missouri, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the New York University Stern School of Business.
Tora had numerous professional affiliations and honors. She was a fellow of SPSSI and served on the SPSSI Council in 1981 as well as on many other committees, and she was included in the SPSSI Arc of Elders in 2011 in recognition of her service.
Tora is survived by a daughter, Karra Bikson of Venice, Calif.; a sister, Alesandra Lanto, of New York, NY; her partner, Fred Ruf of Venice, Calif.; and her former husband, Thomas Bikson of Culver City, Calif.