Making the Case for the Social Sciences no.2: Ageing

As ‘STEM’ started to become shorthand for ‘the only sort of research work that is of importance to our economy’, and the cutbacks started to bite, it became apparent that the Academy of Social Sciences had to act decisively and swiftly to defend the role of social science research in providing the evidence base for policy making. As a result, the Chair of the Academy, Professor Cary Cooper CBE AcSS, proposed to make the very real impact that social science research has on society more widely known. Senior civil servants had told the Academy of the “1:3:25 Rule” when it comes to presenting research to ministers – ministers will read only one page to begin with and, if that page makes it plain what could be of interest to them, they may read three. If they are really grabbed by an idea they may read 25; beyond that, the task is handed over to researchers. Lengthy and detailed research papers do not form part of the initial engagement process with policy-makers. So, the Academy conceived a series of short, attractive and easy-to-read booklets containing a small selection of stories providing real world examples of where social science research has contributed to policy decisions. These booklets – Making the Case for the Social Sciences – are being circulated as widely as possible to foster a widespread increased understanding and awareness.

Drawing upon the work and knowledge of the 700+ individual Academicians and the 38 learned societies that make up the Academy, short vignettes are being gathered on a range of themes with the aim of producing four booklets each year. The first, on the overall topic of ‘wellbeing’ was launched in Whitehall to great acclaim on 10 February 2010, and the second on the subject of ageing at the House of Commons on 20 July. Further issues on Climate Change and Sustainability, Crime, and Health are in preparation, also in partnership with relevant learned societies. At the launch events invited audiences of MPs, policy makers and academics were able to hear presentations from some of the contributors to the booklets and engage with a panel discussion.

The ESRC initially offered assistance with this key public engagement activity, providing considerable support for production, distribution and the first launch event, until its funding for such activities was frozen after the General Election. Fortunately, the second issue was being produced in partnership with Age UK and the British Society of Gerontology who both offered sponsorship to keep this important project on track. The BSG kindly offered an initial collection of impact case studies they had gathered and the production team then built on this in order to achieve a good spread of lively and interesting stories about work at both a macro and more local level. The dozen or so case studies that were ultimately included range from the work of economists at the LSE, modelling the costs of future care funding and producing demographic projections, to uncovering and tackling ageism; from dementia care mapping and the benefits of lifelong education in old age to improving the lot of older people in deprived areas; as well as how to make the outdoor environment ‘elder friendly’.

Making the Case for the Social Sciences No. 2: Ageing was launched at the House of Commons to an invited audience of over 90 people including MPs and Peers. Professor Anthea Tinker AcSS of King’s College, London and Dr Jose-Luis Fernandez of the Personal Social Services Research Unit at the LSE presented highlights of the impact of cost-benefit work on remodelling sheltered housing to extra care and modelling the future costs of social care to the nation.

Speaking at the event Baroness Sally Greengross, Commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission and a former Director of Age Concern, congratulated the Academy for its role in bringing together a broad collection of social research. “Modelling is absolutely essential if we’re going to get policy right,” she added, referring to the presentation on modelling future social care costs. Hugh Pullinger, Head of the Older People and Ageing Society Division at the DWP, supported the call for a proper evidence and analytical base for why an ageing population is an urgent issue and cost-benefit analyses of the best way to deal with it.

The need to plan strategically for an ageing population and the value of access to research evidence in making policy decisions were key themes throughout the panel discussion. Angela Eagle MP, Shadow Spokesperson on Pensions and former Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society, addressed the need to tackle ageism, the need for a greater empowerment of older people and the importance of improving the training and working conditions of those caring for them. She also stressed the importance of representing older people in our culture and our politics and the need to discourage patronising attitudes.

Other studies praised by the panellists and attendees at the event were attitudes to ageism, dementia care mapping, and the importance of promoting wellbeing in an ageing population. Dr Daniel Poulter MP, Conservative MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich and a practising NHS doctor, emphasised the need to enable older people to lead independent lives, noting the value of keeping older people contributing to society. Angela Eagle considered that it was important not to be side-tracked from making steady and real improvements in the lives of older people by the (nevertheless important) hunt for potential cures for conditions such as dementia.

Baroness Greengross drew attention to the central role social science research would play in a forthcoming enquiry into human rights for older people needing care at home. She also emphasised the critical role of social science research in the national plan for dementia, enabling early diagnosis through providing adequate training for those working with older people.

Finally, while the challenges were no doubt formidable, Angela Eagle MP reminded the audience that the problem was nevertheless a good one to have: living longer shouldn’t be seen as a burden or a problem but should be valued, with a shift away from a youth-focused culture.

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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