Tomorrow’s Britain Needs Social Science Today, Report Argues

We appreciate the ringfence around the science budget. Perhaps it could be 10 percent larger? (Photo: © Copyright Jonathan Kington and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)
We appreciate the ringfence around the science budget. Perhaps it could be 10 percent larger? (Photo: © Copyright Jonathan Kington and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)
How should a government deal with social science to the nation’s benefit? Most developed nations have an arm of their research establishment that pays for promising research, such as the social, behavioral and economic science directorate at the United States’ National Science Foundation, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council in Canada, or the Economic and Social Research Council in the United Kingdom.

That’s a start, finds a new report outlining what steps the national government can take to better support social sciences in Britain. But there’s much more, including more cash and restoring a national-level social science adviser, that should be done before inaction erodes the nation’s future prosperity. In addition, the advent of Big Data and the need to preserve bespoke data collection (such as longitudinal surveys) also need to be highlighted in the national “roadmap,” the report insists.

The Business of People: The Significance of Social Science over the Next Decade, as the report is titled, was written by the Campaign for Social Science and released today in hopes of influencing the general election in May.

“The voices of social scientists are often narrowly heard,” said the campaign’s chair, science policy researcher James Wilsdon, “and it is the campaign’s mission to ensure that we speak up for the social sciences, especially ahead of the election.” The report is meant as “a robust case … to the Treasury, ministers, MPs and policymakers” about the vital role of social science and the need to support research, data collection, education and training in its disciplines.

The goal is not to endorse specific candidates, but instead a specific mindset. “Whatever the outcome of the general election,” said Wilsdon, “the challenges facing the UK demand the skills, insights and imagination of social scientists,” a point echoed by other experts involved in drafting the report. “Failing to understand the socio-economic dimensions of innovation could jeopardise the potential of new technologies and advances in the life sciences, physics and engineering,” according to a release accompanying the report’s debut today. One cogent example it offers is the ongoing Ebola outbreak, “which can only be combatted through understanding people and communities.”

The message resonates especially strongly after the release last December of the government’s own Our plan for growth: science and innovation, a policy paper calling for the wise deployment of “all the sciences.”

The first paragraph of the Business of People report’s executive summary lays out the need for the recommendations it makes in turn:

The challenges facing the UK – its prosperity and functioning as a place for trade, creativity, exchange equity and opportunity – will be met only if we deploy social science knowledge, skills and methods of inquiry ever more intensively. To thrive we must innovate. In innovation, we must marry progress in technology and the physical and life sciences with insights from studying behaviour, place, economy and society. To exploit the vastness of Big Data emerging from social media, the biosphere, health and public administration we need collaboration across the disciplines.

“Across many areas of public policy, and increasingly in the world’s leading corporations, we are seeing the increasing adoption of approaches that are at the heart of social science thinking, to tackle some of our biggest problems, whether they be to do with issues of governance or of corporate growth,” said Michelle Harrison, a member of the report’s working group and global head of the social and political practice at the private sector research agency TNS. “Behavioral insight is one example where social science is key to understanding how to communicate with citizens and consumers, and to encourage behavior change for a better social outcome.”

In a conversation with Social Science Space held just after the project was publicly announced, the campaign’s chair, science policy researcher James Wilsdon, emphasized that the document was not meant to be the final word, but rather the first, in both attenuated conversation before the election (and subsequent spending review) and in the halls of government as a whole: “The report is not the end of the story; it’s the beginning of the conversation among and beyond the social science community.”

Now that the report is ready for prime time, Wilsdon argued that it “clearly lays out how important social science is to Britain’s future,” and will “highlight that without more investment in this field, the UK will lose out.”

Perhaps the most graspable component of any “investment” is the money involved. In the UK, the science and research budget is £4.7 billion a year, an amount that has a so-called protective “ring fence” surrounding it that prevents it falling in absolute terms. Despite that, in actual spending power the campaign estimates that allocation has lost £1.1 billion in value in the five years leading up to the next budget. And so the report calls for expanding that “ring fence” another 10 percent over the lifetime of the next parliament. Since that amount covers the entire research community, Business of People calls for this additional increment to be dedicated to interdisciplinary and cross-research council programs.

Furthermore, the report asks that the national government explicitly recognize the contributions that social science makes in its own rights and as a guide for understanding the nature of innovation through things like pushing through the Nurse Review or research councils to recognize social science’s values or to ensure that “strategic priority for the next five years include data skills, macroeconomics and equipping more social scientists for collaborative working across the disciplines.”

Beyond issues of funding, there is the issue of focus. The report reiterates the call to restore the position of ‘chief social science adviser,’ a post scrapped in 2010, and to reconstitute the UK Strategic Forum for the Social Sciences to support the existing government chief scientific adviser. This should occur against a backdrop of greater use of evidence-based research across the UK’s devolved administrations and big cities, the report says, “as part of a broader modernisation of scrutiny and the supply of evidence.”

The call isn’t just a pleading before ministers; the report seeks greater input from the social science community to mirror the enthusiasm sought in government. “We urge more Whitehall departments to appoint candidates from social science backgrounds as their chief scientific advisers and correspondingly encourage more social science researchers and practitioners to put themselves forward for appointment.”

The report also makes some more granular requests, including equitable treatment of student loans for prospective social scientists and ensuring that quality-related funds destined for social science research always reach their intended destination. The full set of recommendations appears below.

“Whatever the outcome of the general election,” the release quotes Wilsdon, “the challenges facing the UK demand the skills, insights and imagination of social scientists. Growth, health, security and wellbeing all depend on knowing how markets, organisations, individuals and households work, making investment in social science a critical component of the government’s strategy for science and innovation. It’s with confidence in the absolute necessity of social science that this report stakes its claim on scarce resources.”

The report was published by SAGE, which is both a major donor to the project and the parent of this website. Other partners in its preparation were the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, British Sociological Association, Regional Studies Association, British Psychological Society, Nuffield Foundation and Royal Statistical Society.


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