Social Sciences Need a Collective Voice

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Originally Published at The Guardian Higher Education Network  on September 19th, 2013


Last week saw the launch of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology’s (POST) new section on social science. POST, currently chaired by Adam Afriyie MP, has been running for 20 years advising policy makers on scientific evidence in areas ranging from life sciences to energy, so it is a major step in recognition of the importance of social science evidence that this new section has been launched.

This is a good example of how much better social science is fairing in the UK than in the US. From the protection of ESRC funding in the 2010 round, to the re-funding of the national birth cohort study and most recently the launch of What Works centres (modelled on the National Institute for Clinical Excellence but aimed at shaping public policy), we can see that the current UK government is at least somewhat persuaded of the benefits of supporting and integrating social science research into the policy making process.

In the US, while the Obama administration understands the importance of public policy being informed by rigorous research, there are alarming signs of an anti-intellectual and anti-academic ethos in other quarters which is singling out social science research as a perceived easy target. The Coburn Amendment which was passed in the spring, restricting the National Science Foundation’s funding of political science research to work ‘promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States’ heralded a political breakthrough for those hostile to this important research. Alongside the Coburn amendment there have been repeated noises to target US social science funding more generally, such as from majority house leader Eric Cantor, indicating this could be just the beginning of more swingeing funding cuts. These events have been bizarrely under-reported in the UK, meaning you could well be hearing about them now for the first time.

I have also been struck by how widespread disillusion with social science has become, as compared with natural science. This summer I attended the SciFoo Camp ‘unconference’ at Google’s MountainView campus in silicon valley. The mood was celebratory and filled with hope about what science and technology could deliver for humanity, with Larry Page, Google co-founder, offering up their $50 Billion of cash reserves to fund these activities. This is not a tone one encounters at social science based meetings these days despite the huge value of their work to society.

As Congress works on legislation to re-authorise fiscal year 2014 funding for the NSF, there will likely be attempts to cut social science funding further. In this context, while we at SAGE have seen the social science case being made by various groups we can also see, unfortunately, that the message is not getting through well enough. So we have responded by helping to coordinate and fund a campaign against such attacks in future. The campaign links together key umbrella bodies such as the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS) and the Consortium for Social Science Associations (COSSA) with many leading societies such as the American Education Research Association (AERA) to combine forces and messages. The first ‘call to action’ meeting was held last week and focused, among other things, on identifying current threats, defining key goals (such as removing the Coburn amendment) alongside ‘action alerts’ to mobilise the social science community more effectively.

It seems extraordinary that such action is necessary at a time when key social science questions from behaviour change on energy use, national and international security, ageing demographics and the social determinants of health to name just a few are such political priorities. And yet this is the reality in the US at least. As Paul Boyle, Chief Executive of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) put it in a recent article.

‘The United States has benefited enormously from social science research in the past. Politicians would be wise to acknowledge this and refrain from a self-defeating critique of the world’s leading social science community.’

And while the picture in the UK is somewhat healthier we need to keep abreast of the issues internationally and avoid complacency.  As the saying goes ‘when the US sneezes, the world catches a cold.’


Ziyad Marar is global publishing director at SAGE, and author of The Happiness Paradox (Reaktion, 2003), Deception (Acumen, 2008), and Intimacy: Understanding the Subtle Power of Human Connection (Acumen, 2012). Ziyad can be followed on twitter @ZiyadMarar


Originally Published at The Guardian Higher Education Network 

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Ziyad Marar

Ziyad Marar is an author and president of global publishing at SAGE Publishing. His books include Judged: The Value of Being Misunderstood (Bloomsbury, 2018), Intimacy: Understanding the Subtle Power of Human Connection (Acumen Publishing, 2012), Deception (Acumen Publishing, 2008), and The Happiness Paradox (Reaktion Books 2003). He tweets @ZiyadMarar.

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