Measuring value usually devolves to a monetary evaluation. So, for example, when the LSE Public Policy Group wanted to measure the impact of the social sciences in the United Kingdom, they engaged Cambridge Econometrics to help track down the fiscal evidence. While that wasn’t the group’s only metric, it did deliver the marquee soundbite that social science research and employment is worth roughly is worth approximately £24 billion to Britain’s economy every year.
An earlier report, this one from the Campaign for Social Science, in October reported that university students in the social sciences were able to find employment—always a bugaboo surrounding these disciplines—at a higher rate than science and technical grads. Again, the takeaway was that there’s gold in them thar hills.
A new effort digging in the same mine uses a different shovel to delve for shiny bits from both the social sciences and the humanities. And even though the title, Prospering Wisely, conjures images of money as the metric, in fact this project from the British Academy uses a squishier dataset—influence– to demonstrate benefit to the broader economy.
“Prosperity stretches way beyond material income or consumption,” Lord Nicholas Stern, president of the British Academy, is quoted in a release. “It is how we live, how we interact with each other, what our sense of community and identity is, and how we manage uncertainty and anxiety.”
And so the academy’s effort uses the idea of prosper as equivalent to human flourishing, and so its three main chapters each address an aspect of well-being: “firstly, understanding the meaning of, measuring and seeking to foster fuller, better lives; secondly, nurturing a healthy, open democracy; and finally, continuing to encourage inventiveness, fresh thinking and the growth of knowledge.”
Only the third section even touches on the fiscal measures that dominate the other reports. And that touch is light; Prospering Wisely tends to look more at less quantifiable measures, such as “soft power” derived from cultural sway, innovation derived from psychological insights, or policy recommendations for dealing with crises like the global financial meltdown.
“Today’s economy,” according to the authors, “based on knowledge and ideas, is far more fluid, far less capable of easy definition than any of its predecessors – but at the same time, is in many ways more exciting and creative, provided we understand better where we are, the lessons of the past and the opportunities for the future.”
Or as historian Peter Hennessy summarized, “like all the most important things in life [curiousity] is beyond metrics.”
It’s worth noting at this point that Prospering Widely is a multimedia project, and the heart of the effort is less the 40-page report and more the 11 taped (and transcribed) interviews with leading British professors such as, Hennessy, Mary Beard, John Kay, Adam Roberts, and Vicki Bruce. Their observations are the raw material the authors used to compile the booklet linked to here. The forward comes from Stern, the president of the British Academy (and who spoke eloquently at a panel on the launch of the Impact book cited above).
“The value of our role in society is strong and deep, but it has to be explained more clearly,” Stern says. “We need strong academic research to push forward our understanding of identity and society, and help policy makers grapple with the difficult choices we face – from climate change to our steadily ageing population to how to restart economic growth.”
Like the other reports cited, and similar efforts in the United States, the starting point for the discussion is the perception that the social sciences (and humanities) are under attack. “By most measures, the humanities and social sciences in the UK (rivalled only by the USA) lead the world,” Prospering Wisely asserts. “Yet they are still an underprized asset in many of the corridors of Whitehall, Westminster and what was Fleet Street.”
And so the project cites a number of social science or social science-influenced studies on matters of great public import – Anthony Heath’s seminal work on health inequality, Hazel Glen’s on linking an individual’s health and their legal problems, and Stern’s own review on climate change – in tracking influence.
Britain has more explicitly embraced social science—through its vaunted “nudge unit” or its lapsed post of chief social scientist—than many other countries. This in turn creates more explicit opportunities highlight social science, especially as the British government moves from advisers to advocates. “You can tell people that eating doughnuts is bad for their health, or you can make it more difficult to eat doughnuts,” Stern demonstrates in a Simpsons-esque analogy. “The first is information; the second is nudge. You are intervening in favour of the higher against the lower self, or the longer term against the shorter term self. Many would instinctively think, ‘Well, that is probably the right thing to do.’ But social scientists and philosophers ask, ‘Is that obvious? Who are you to intervene?’ In public policy decisions, you quickly run into these kinds of problems, and it is our duty, from the perspective of the humanities, right through the social sciences, to help in structuring a discussion of responses.”
London School of Economics law professor Conor Gearty argues that social scientists bring passion, energy—and independence—to the policy table, something he terms “an amazing social good” and a “fantastic resource”:
‘The inter-relationship between the academic who is thinking about what ought to happen, and the politician or policy-maker who is saying “yes, you may be right, but let me tell you why that won’t work” is a tremendously creative space, and it works to the benefit of the general public because they get policies mediated by a politician but rooted in independent thought.’
According to sociologist Heath, this can—or should—include scholars standing tall and “telling truth to power” by presenting hard evidence to policymakers who may not want to hear it. “I take the optimistic view,” he told the British Academy, “that more information is going to make for better government – and that even information that you do not like, you would still be wise to take on board rather than suppress. I hope my research would be of interest to a government of any complexion.’
The same sense of self-correction is true of less stats-driven disciplines like history, according to the authors. “History’s main purpose is to stop us telling mistaken stories on which we then act,” according to Oxford’s Diarmaid MacCulloch, well known for his televised review of Christianity. “History is full of examples of very bad history leading to very bad actions. The obvious one, which is no less true for being obvious, is the Third Reich, which was built on an entirely false view of history. In an evil, totalitarian dictatorship like that, all history is poisoned. But the same is true for any democracy. Particularly in a democracy, telling the story right is really very important, because so many people are involved in making decisions, even if it is just a vote at an election.”