LSE Study Offers More Ammunition for Social Sciences’ Defense

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In the war over social science, the academic world is adding the various fields’ economic clout to its arsenal of persuasion.

This week’s official launch of the results of a lengthy study into social sciences’ impact on the United Kingdom’s economy debuts a new weapon in the almost existential skirmishing over the value of the disciplines. It’s a weapon that may be useful beyond Britain’s shores.

Spearheaded by the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Public Policy Group, the Impact of Social Sciences project has beavered away for the last three years to “develop precise methods for measuring and evaluating the impact of research in the public sphere.” Earlier this month the LSE and SAGE released The Impact of Social Sciences: How Academics and their Research Make a Difference, a book that sets out the findings in great—and presumably persuasive—detail.  A panel featuring officials from government, NGOs, business, and academe discussed the material today; that event will be archived on the LSE website.

UPDATE: Audio from the event can be heard here:

One key impact is of course money, and the book’s authors, Simon BastowPatrick Dunleavy, and Jane Tinkler, write that the social sciences contribute £24.3 billion ($40.1 billion) a year to Britain’s economy.

As the Public Policy Group explained in an earlier SocialScienceSpace post:

This figure is the collective economic value of social science teaching and research in UK universities (£4.8 billion a year) plus the costs that the financial sector, business corporations and public sector agencies spend on employing professional social scientists to mediate or translate academic research into their organisations (at least £19.4 billion a year).

To put those figures in context, Britain’s gross domestic product was just under £1.6 trillion, according to the most recent estimates from the Office of National Statistics. Comparing the LSE figure to the national economy suggests that 6 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product is directly traceable to academic social science.  “The empirical focus of the work is mainly on the U.K.,” the authors acknowledge, “although our findings will have direct relevance for other major markets in Europe, North America, and internationally.” If the U.K. impact were equivalent for the United States and its $16.9 trillion economy, that would approach $260 billion.

Again, those are direct values. The authors note, for example, that the businesses and civil institutions which routinely tap into social science contribute an estimated £850 billion to the U.K. economy—i.e., half the total.

If all this calculating suggests a whiff of justification, that’s intentional. The value of the social sciences has been a matter of some dispute, especially in the U.K. and the U.S., and especially because government is the primary source of money for researchers.

In the U.S., there’s a burgeoning bunker mentality over a “war on social science” – melodramatic terminology, to be sure, but widely accepted.  Witness a sampling from Ted Farber (“Ignorance as political bliss: The Republican war on social science” ),  journalist David Weigel (“The Republican War on Social Science”), and Kenneth Prewitt (“The Congressional War on Social Science”). As Farber, a law professor the University of California, Berkeley, opined:

Maybe, as I’ve suggested above, some of the opposition relates to discomfort over objective examination of our faltering political system, or a fear that research into economics might not support conservative dogmas. The rest, I fear, is simple, garden variety anti-intellectualism …

In a July article titled “The War on Social Science” in the currently hibernating Symposium magazine, Rice University political scientist Rick K. Wilson employs the slippery slope argument in a plea for more allies in this war.  Once a program officer for the National Science Foundation’s Political Science Program, he argued:

[T]he larger scientific community should not ignore the shackling of one program at the NSF. If politics dictates what is worth studying, all disciplines are at risk. If politicians decide that they can judge the merit of cutting-edge research, then the peer review system is at risk. Why stop at political science, when the entire NSF Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences could be eliminated? Why stop there if biology continues to insist on using evolutionary models? The challenge to science is clear.

The LSE-led study demonstrates that fears for the safety of social science extend well beyond arenas where the GOP or the U.S. Congress hold sway.  For example, that there might not be a job market for newly minted social scientists was the focus of a report last year by Britain’s Campaign for Social Science. Addressing the perception that social science grads who want to use their education can only find work as social workers or teachers, the study suggested that social science grads were actually more employable that those from other disciplines. “You’re more likely to get a job if you study ‘social’ sciences, say fuzzy-studies profs,” headlined the tech-obsessed website The Register, which both criticized the findings (some blasts were valid and some ad hominem) and exemplified the disdain many have for social science.

In reviewing the Impact book, Penny Young, the chief executive of NatCen Social Research, suggested the social sciences themselves must be more active in addressing that stigma. “The social sciences have tremendous impact potential,” she said, “But in practice, our research community can take much more responsibility for generating a return on the public’s investment.”

Cost, after all, is one of the cudgels often swung by foes of social science. Florida Congressman Bill Posey, for example, after insulting some specific NSF-funded social science on the floor of the House last year, insisted he wasn’t anti-intellectual, just pro-free market. “I’m not advocating we stop all the social-science study spending,” Weigel quoted the politician. “I just think it might be appropriate that much of that be left to the private sector.”

Perhaps, if a compelling enough economic case can be made for social science, partisans on both sides of both the aisle—and the Atlantic–might find reason to be pleased.

Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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