UK Social Science Readies its Case Before 2015 Elections

James Wilsdon
James Wilsdon

Before the 2010 general elections in Britain, the scientific community mobilized to make its case to both the electorate and those elected. The Royal Society’s Scientific Century report marshaled two Nobel laureates, among others, to emphasize how science and innovation were at the heart of Britain’s economy; the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council, and Academy of Medical Sciences paraded their 2008 report on the economic benefits of medical research; vacuum cleaner savant James Dyson detailed Ingenious Britain for the Conservative party; and the prime minister’s own Council for Science and Technology revealed A Vision for UK Research.

Those worthy efforts, and others, shared a salient feature—they focused on the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and medicine. They did not represent the social sciences during a critical period when national leadership was up for grabs and the global recession was at its destructive peak. Which is not to say no one spoke up for social science. Both the Economic and Social Research Council and the British Academy lobbied with pen and appointment book – but their attack paled next to STEM’s offensive.

In May of next year, Britons head to the polls again for a general election, and this time the social sciences are prepared to make their case loudly and proudly. There’s already a small bookshelf of reports on the importance of the social sciences to Britain, among them recent high-profile efforts like the British Academy’s Prospering Wisely multimedia project and the London School of Economics’ The Impact of the Social Sciences book. And at a third birthday party held Wednesday for the UK’s Campaign for Social Science, a new effort was announced aimed specifically at the 2015 general election and the spending review that will follow it. Intended to draw from existing and new research on social science’s monetary and societal value to the UK, a smartly presented summary of the project’s evidence will go to members of parliament and to policymakers well before the May vote.

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The Academy of Social Sciences, which is the sponsor of the Campaign for Social Science, is a partner of Social Science Space. SAGE, which is a major sponsor of the Campaign’s new lobbying effort, is the parent of Social Science Space.

Chairing the effort (and the Campaign for Social Science itself) is James Wilsdon, a professor of science and democracy at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, and the founding director of the Science Policy Centre at the Royal Society. In 2010, Wilsdon was in the unique position at the Royal Society of articulating the natural sciences’ case—as a social scientist—to the policymakers. Now he’s being asked to apply the lessons of 2010 to 2015, this time for his home disciplines.

The project will gather a dozen or so leading academics, practitioners, business people and others willing and able to “get their hands dirty” in building a case for social science. (The final list of the working group members is expected in a week or so.)

The effort will start with a review–led by the Academy of Social Sciences’ new head of policy, David Walker, and policy officer Roses Leech-Wilkinson–of the evidence that’s been gathered in the last few years. (The Academy of Social Sciences is the sponsor of the Campaign for Social Science.) Participants will then gather new data and conduct a series of workshops and seminars to allow a broader community to weigh in on how social science fits in areas such as innovation, government, linkage to STEM, and higher education. The team will ultimately produce a report — “a short, sharp, crisp and hopefully engaging report that makes the best case we possibly can,” Wilsdon predicted — in early 2015, long-enough before the general election to influence the debate.

(The report will be published by SAGE, which is both a major donor to the project and the parent of this website.)

Wilson emphasized to Social Science Space that the resulting document, while being the focus of the project, is not ‘final.’ “The report is not the end of the story; it’s the beginning of the conversation among and beyond the social science community.”

The day after the project was unveiled, Social Science Space talked with Wilsdon about the state of social science in the United Kingdom and what this new lobbying campaign was all about. That conversation, edited for length and clarity, appears below.

A really general question first: What is the definition of social science?

Certainly from the perspective of the Campaign for Social Science, we see our remit as spanning the full range of disciplines you would normally associate with social science – geography, anthropology, political science, education, business management, sociology, etc. But certainly also economics, and I think in many respects increasingly these days, to use Marilyn Strathern’s phrase, it’s the commons and borderlands between the social sciences and the Humanities and STEM disciplines where one finds a lot of very creative work. We’re certainly very interested in those areas and in supporting collaboration between social scientists and others who are working on and in other domains that are not traditionally thought of as social science.

Do they see themselves as a unified entity?

I think the motivation here among a broad sweep of individuals and learned societies across these different disciplines was to bring together a stronger collective voice in the way that the STEM subjects do very effectively. I myself am a science policy researcher who worked for the UK’s National Academy of Science, and worked very much in that domain of the natural sciences, albeit as a social scientist. There are obviously a lot of issues on which medics have very different perspectives from engineers, and physicists have very different perspectives from organic chemists, and yet they also see huge value in joining voices and acting collectively on a lot of shared common issues. It’s that sort of collective platform or voice that the Campaign for Social Science seeks to facilitate and encourage here among the social science community.

Could you describe the terrain for social science in the UK?

In terms of the university sector, we have a very strong social science sector and community in the UK. In many respects, second only to the US, and in some disciplines, depending on which metrics you want to use, outperforming America. It’s a very strong and substantial slice of the UK academic research base. There’s a very good book that colleagues at the London School of Economics have just published, Patrick Dunleavy and Jane Tinkler and Simon Bastow, containing lots of details, facts and figures on the size of the sector, its contribution to the economy, and the proportion of university academics who work within it.  But of course, that isn’t all of the social science community. At the Campaign we’re also very concerned with practitioners of social science in government, in Whitehall government departments, or in other parts of the public sector, and indeed the social sciences that are used within business. We see the community as broader than just the academic community, although perhaps inevitably that’s where we draw more of our members and focus, and spend a fair proportion of our energies.

How does the national government fit into that ecosystem?

We have seven different research councils, and the main funder of social sciences is the Economic and Social Research Council, although certainly that’s not the only funder of social science. Increasingly there’s all these different sorts of interdisciplinary areas, whether it’s energy research or food or infrastructure, you’ve got joint programs from other research councils—engineering, physical sciences, biology  – they’re also funding social science. But the ESRC is our main research council. The situation here since the last election in 2010 is one of flat-cash research projects, and at the time that was seen as a relatively positive result given the overall state of public finances and resource repercussions of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. Of course, as Parliament has worn on – we’re in the final year of a five year term – the pressures of operating in a flat-cash system are beginning to be felt in various ways.

There have been some additional investments in key priority areas –  a lot of stuff in Big Data. There’s one example where ESRC has been given additional targeted funds, and there’s been additional funding in quantitative methods, the whole network of Q-Step centres. So the funding picture has been flat-cash with bits and pieces of extra money set aside for key priority themes and projects. Looking ahead to the next election, which will be in May 2015,  and then the spending review that will follow that, we’re obviously very keen to move beyond a flat cash environment. I think that for everyone in the research community, whether they’re in the social sciences, the natural sciences or the humanities fields, another prolonged period of flat cash only will really start to have a detrimental effect on health and vitality and sustainability of the research sector. Yeah, we are looking for funding increases beyond the next election. At this stage particularly, we tend to often work in alliance with our colleagues in natural sciences and the humanities in making the bigger, general case for the research budget.

Obviously there’s a particular point where you break that down and start arguing for your particular corner, but at the moment we want to just press the case for research funding in the round.

Are the social sciences engaged in a sort of zero-sum game with STEM? Does one of you need to lose so the other can win?

No, I don’t think it’s ever made sense to get into some sort of spitting contest with STEM, in part, as I’ve said, because of the very fruitful areas of research and impact for the social sciences in collaboration with and at the boundaries between social science and natural science. Sure, there’s always going to be competition for resource. Our job, though, isn’t to tension our offer against that of the natural sciences, it’s to tension it against many of the other things that place demands on public spending. Overall, you know, the research budget is very small piece of the overall public spending jigsaw in this country. That’s why we should be clearly making the argument that the increase is across the board.  But of course, our particular strength and capacity is in articulating why the social science piece within the research budget is important.

Is this just about money? The Campaign also talks about policy and strategy.

We’re also very concerned with the use of social science within government, within public policy. It’s placed within the evidence mix that policymakers and other draw on. Here again, there’s a lot of progress; we’ve seen quite a number of high-profile developments and investments within the UK system in recent years. The What Works centres, the ESRC, and the government have come together to set up in key areas of public policy  — local economic growth, aging, early years, etc. There’s also been units within government, like the Behavioural Insights Team that’s commonly known as the Nudge Unit, which has been using a blend of methods, tools, and insights from behavioural economics and other areas of social science in the design and delivery of policy experiments with the use of random trails in various new areas, etc.

So there’s quite a lot that’s been successful. At the same time, we think there’s still a fair bit that could be done to really make the most of what social science has to offer to the policy process. Inevitably, economics and economists have a well-established set of institutions and ways of doing that, and natural science has increasingly through having advisers in every department, and a more professional science and engineering profession  in Whitehall are increasingly well equipped to do that. We want to make sure social science is in the same position, not because we‘re trying to protect our own turf but because we think substantive policy will be improved as the best of social science research is brought more centrally into the public-policy process.

What lessons did you learn in 2010?

I have seen at close hand what works and doesn’t work from the STEM end. … I think one of the biggest lessons is the power that comes from a chorus of voices speaking up on your behalf. We have the tendency sometimes to see these things in competitive terms,  between different disciplines or different learned societies or academies, The STEM community, sure, it has its territorial rivalries and its skirmishes — as does any other community — but they are good, when push comes to shove, at lining up together and speaking collectively on key issues with a plurality of voices that are complementing  and reinforcing what each other are really saying. And I think that’s something that we in the social sciences need to get better at. That’s a role the Campaign wants to play.

The Campaign for Social Science just celebrated its third birthday. What have you accomplished in that time?

In a relatively short period – three years hasn’t been very long –  the Campaign has been building the sort of coalition I’ve been describing in becoming an effective network through which social scientists from all different disciplines and practitioners and those engaged in social science in government and business can sort of come together, debate the key issues that confront us as a community, and articulate our case. We’ve published various reports, briefings on key topics, and run lots of events. We try and meet regularly with key politicians and decision-makers to advance our case. I hope we’ve demonstrated to the community at large the value that comes from having this sort of body making an intelligent and evidence-based, formal case on our collective behalf to the people that matter.

Sure, there’s always going to be competition for resource. Our job, though, isn’t to tension our offer against that of the natural sciences, it’s to tension it against many of the other things that place demands on public spending. Overall, you know, the research budget is very small piece of the overall public spending jigsaw in this country

Not be argumentative, but how does this latest effort differ from other ones like Prospering Wisely or the LSE’s Impact?

No, I think that’s a very fair and sensible question. We’re,  working very closely with the team that produced the LSE book – I’ve actually just come out of a two-hour meeting with Patrick this morning talking about precisely this. There’s a real wealth of data and analysis in that book that we can draw on and build on in making an argument. I think the team that produced that would be the first to acknowledge it wasn’t produced as a document to influence debate during a spending review; that’s not the terms under which it was written. There are ways in which we can draw out, emphasize particular points, and present the argument in particular ways that I think are very complementary to the excellent work they’ve already been doing. I think similarly with the British Academy’s Prospering Wisely project, I hope we will be working hand-in-hand with them to reinforce similar points. I think it was a very good document; I think what we hope to do is articulate with a wealth of evidence and analysis some of the specific ways in which the social sciences contribute to the economy, to society, to democracy, to public policy. I think all of our messages are common, and that’s a strength. As I was saying in terms of lessons from STEM –  lots of different reports from lots of natural science associations here in the last election – each one of them contributed something distinctive. Some were more influential than others; I hope ours is one in the social sciences that can be influential and a valuable piece of work.

What sort of metrics does this latest project have? How will you know if you’re succeeding?

Well, one could believe the spending review is! You’ll know at the end of the day if you got the result that you wanted – it gets announced by the chancellor in no uncertain terms in his or her first budget. That’s one fairly strong and transparent metric through which the success or failure of all of us lobbying from whichever discipline and quarter requesting investment in research can assess whether we’ve been effective.

Beneath that, there are event specifics  such as the proportion of funding which goes to the ESRC, specific things we’ll be able to look at in terms of the structure, and the institutional arrangement of social science in government. We’ll certainly have a stack of very clear asks in our report, and I guess the question will be a year down the line: How many of those have been delivered? How many of them are advancing in slower but still positive ways? How many have died a death in the graveyard of well meaning but ultimately fruitless recommendations in worthy report, of which there’s obviously no shortage?

Do you care about data, so-called Big Data, methods and general quantitative information gathering?

That’s one area where there have really been some good, high-profile investments through the ESRC and other funders in the last couple of years. There have been areas of tension here, like the national census, but in general, the argument about the value of those data sets and the need to maintain them, has been heard. I think there are ongoing issues about the capacity to make the most of all of this data that’s been generated, in particular with the newer things being enabled through the whole Big Data agenda. It’s been fantastic—we’ve had investments on the capital side. Now we hope to get more of those to protect, maintain and strengthen data sets of various types. We also need to make sure we’re investing on the human side in the skills and training and the quantity of people required to analyze and make the most of all of that.

Is there any aspect of what your working group will be working on that might surprise observers?

We’re obviously very conscious and watching very closely the developments in the U.S., all the arguments that have raged around the Coburn amendment and now the ongoing battles and arguments over NSF funding. Obviously we’re writing a report in the context of the UK election to an audience of primarily UK policymakers, but we want it to stand very much in the context of social science as an international enterprise and a national community. We’re very keen to make common cause, share evidence, and help construct arguments with colleagues in the U.S. and elsewhere who are also engaged in making these arguments, perhaps in slightly more difficult circumstances.

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