Social science – moving society forward

It is vital not to overlook the need for social science work in supporting other advances in our society and the wider economy. The current debate in government circles about drivers of economic improvement is in danger of restricting government’s vision of what is required to take our society forward. Possibly it is the lack of photogenic, technological wizardry involved in this side of scientific research that can mean that it gets overlooked in the public consciousness. Witness The Times’ own science correspondent Mark Henderson in the September issue of the ‘Eureka’ science supplement, who commented that it would be wonderful to apply scientific principles to learn what works in the classroom or other social situations: if he has forgotten about the huge quantity of important work that social science already carries out, what hope is there? We must not allow the contribution made by social scientists, in their wide ranging provision of carefully collected and assayed evidence to those wanting to know more about the whole range of issues affecting society and societies, and the Academy has been collecting stories of research work to show the difference this can make.

For example, a team led by Professor Ossie Jones and Dr Dilani Jayawarna of Manchester Metropolitan University Business School took a fresh look at the old problem of how to revitalise the Northwest of England. They tested a theory that it was possible to regenerate socially deprived areas by encouraging indigenous growth, rather than waiting for outside businesses to come in and replace what had been lost. They set up a project to recruit, train and mentor would-be entrepreneurs from the most deprived areas of Northwest England, which ran for 9 years. The New Entrepreneurship Scholarship scheme resulted in a remarkable turn-around for those taking part and for the areas where they lived and operated. On an individual basis, the vast majority of participants moved from economic inactivity to wealth generation. It was also calculated part way through the project that, as these new entrepreneurs left unemployment behind, they were contributing around £35.2 million to the Northwest economy.

Growing a skilled workforce is vital for the future of our nation but this has not always been straightforward. Professor Tommy McKay, an educational psychologist from the University of Strathclyde, set up a wide-ranging study of potential methods for improving literacy rates in a deprived area of Scotland where lack of literacy was endemic. Using the core scientific principles of analysis, comparison and control, he established and ran a ten-year project with West Dunbartonshire Council that clearly demonstrated how best to teach literacy and improve attitudes towards learning in children from deprived backgrounds. The project was so successful – effectively eliminating illiteracy in this area – that it was rolled out across other areas both of Scotland and the rest of the UK, having already improved both the quality of life for the thousands of children and families involved and the skill set of the national workforce.

Frequently social science is an essential adjunct to successful technological developments. For example, social scientists worked alongside teams of architects and civil engineers in developing outdoor surroundings for older people so that they were likely to be used and thereby provide long-term benefits to wellbeing and health with all the economic implications of lower usage of health related services. The Inclusive Design for Getting Outdoors (I’DGO) Consortium examined how older people actually used and perceived the outdoor environment and where the barriers and impediments to using it lay. A piece of rough open ground might appear adequate provision for health-improving exercise but it will not be used by older people: the researchers found that confidence to go outside required knowledge that there would be suitable and adequate seating and toilet facilities, as well as well-maintained surfaces and a pleasant view. Building from this the team provided design advice that has been taken up by the World Health Organisation in its publication on creating Global Age-Friendly Cities and the UK’s own National Strategy for Housing in an Ageing Society.

Many environmental threats dominate our view of the future and a disjunction can frequently be seen between the availability of technology to mitigate the risks and the possibility of doing so. Professor Wyn Grant, a political scientist at the University of Warwick, helped solve the conundrum of why promising alternatives to increasingly undesirable chemical pesticides were not becoming more widely available. He showed that the problem lay in the licensing system, which was inappropriate for the different actions of biopesticides and too expensive for the smaller companies that typically developed these new alternatives. A further issue of motivation to farmers from the supermarket purchasers emerged and was investigated. As a result the UK leads the field in Europe for biopesticide regulation and these more environmentally friendly alternatives are more freely available for use.

Looking at the bigger picture, economists working with Professor Mike Murphy at the LSE worked out that we are going to have rather more older people in this country in the future, leading to government reassessments of what it will need to budget. Looking further out still, social scientists at the STEPS (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability) Centre at Sussex University are linking environmental sustainability and technology with poverty reduction and social justice. They developed a unique ‘pathways’ approach which aims to understand the complex, non-linear interactions between social, technological and environmental systems. Some pathways may threaten poor peoples’ livelihoods and health while others create opportunities for sustainability. As a result they are able to advise international bodies, including WHO, on ways in which to achieve real improvements around the world in sustainable farming strategies, water infrastructure and health systems.

To overlook and undervalue social science’s historic and ongoing contribution to development and the improvement of societies both local and global is to overlook and undervalue a vast and rich resource without which so much less would be achieved.

Cary Cooper and Madeleine Barrows
Professor Cary Cooper CBE is Chair of the Academy of Social Sciences and Madeleine Barrows is Communications Officer for the Academy.

Academy of Social Sciences

The Academy of Social Science’s mission is to promote social sciences in the United Kingdom for the public benefit. The academy is composed of individual academicians and learned societies; it responds to government and other consultations on behalf of the social science community, organizes meetings about social science and seminars on topics that span social science disciplines, and sponsors a number of efforts that promote social science and enhance its value to society.

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