Campaign Does Have a Public View of Public’s Science

John Holmwood, left, and James Wilsdon
In a recent article on The Guardian’s Higher Education Network, University of Nottingham sociologist John Holmwood argues that a recent report from the Campaign for Social Sciences, despite being titled The Business of People, is at its heart undemocratic. Holmwood writes, “… the word democracy is mentioned only once. ‘Political self-understanding matters; it is a precondition of democracy,’ the report states. Even here, the audience is politicians, not the public. Where is the emphasis on the value of social science to a public debate unmediated by politicians and policy-makers?”

Holmwood concludes, “To take the ‘politics’ out of policy is to take the ‘public’ out of politics. What is at stake is the nature of the social sciences themselves. Are they in the service of publics, or of practitioners and policymakers? Increasingly, there is a democratic deficit at the heart of the social sciences. It is redressing that deficit that should be our concern when we ask: what is the value of the social sciences?”

He also argues that the report’s request for a 10 percent increase on British science spending ignores increases in student fees that essentially backfill losses from recent austerity measures.

Holmwood, the co-founder of the Campaign for the Public University and until recently the president of the British Sociological Association, has written extensively about higher education and is no stranger to stirring things up; a headline in The Guardian about a 2011 report on academic funding was headlined, “Higher education white paper is provoking a winter of discontent.”

Here, science policy researcher James Wilsdon, the chair of the campaign, takes issue with much of Holmwood’s critique. This response was originally posted as a comment on The Guardian; The Business of People was published by SAGE, which is also the sponsor of Social Science Space.


Professor Holmwood is of course entitled to disagree with the case that’s being made by the Campaign for Social Science in its recent report. But as chair of the Campaign, let me make three points in response to his poorly-argued critique:

1) First, the article misrepresents the Campaign report. Yes, we make no apologies for using plenty of examples of policy-relevant social science. But we also talk about the value of social science in non-instrumental terms and, most importantly, in our recommendations we nowhere call for “more funding for the kind of research preferred by government” or for exclusive/privileged funding of behavioural sciences or big data, as Holmwood suggests. In our recommendations (pp. xii-xiv of the report) we call, first and foremost, for continued protection of the public research budget, with no suggestion at all that there should be any new restrictions on how that money is spent. (I personally would like to see more being spent in open, responsive modes).

Business of People report coverWe then argue that an additional 10 per cent should be added to the £4.7 billion ringfenced research budget, over the lifetime of the next Parliament, and directed towards “interdisciplinary research and cross-council programmes.” Again we don’t specify what modes of interdisciplinarity: this could be critical sociologists working with anthropologists, philosophers working with synthetic biologists, educationalists working with neuroscientists, or historians working with political scientists. We don’t mind, but we do think (in light of evidence gathered during the project and analysis by others before us) that the UK research system as a whole would benefit from more of this kind of funding, to break down existing silos and encourage more creative collaborations. This is of course one of the issues that Sir Paul Nurse will be looking at in his review of the Research Councils, for which a call for evidence is now underway.

The idea, as Holmwood insinuates, that there is a “version of social science” which the Campaign for Social Science is seeking to promote is utter nonsense: we are making the best possible case we can to enable the richness, diversity and breadth of all UK social science to be protected and strengthened. To do that, yes, we sensibly and strategically highlight examples that will appeal to policymakers in HM Treasury, BIS and elsewhere, because experience and the pragmatic realities of how spending rounds operate, teach us that this is the best way to achieve the result we all want (and I speak from direct personal involvement in previous spending rounds, where as director of science policy at the Royal Society, I sat across the table from Treasury officials, arguing for the protection of the research budget).

I’m curious as to what Holmwood’s alternative strategy for the next 6-12 months would look like? This bit seems to be missing from his article… And on what basis does he think his approach will work more effectively than ours, which is based on in-depth advice from over 200 social scientists and economists of all hues, policymakers, NGOs, funders, think tankers, VCs/PVCs, natural scientists and others who had input to our report, at numerous meetings, workshops and on paper over the course of the last ten months. I’d welcome an intelligent critique of our efforts, because clearly there are genuine dilemmas and trade-offs in how these arguments are made and presented – and the layering of headline messages, example and recommendations in reports like this. But I don’t find any of that in this article.

2) Second, Holmwood suggests that social scientists should not be making any such case for additional funding because the university sector is “more protected than the NHS”. Like Holmwood, I care passionately about protecting and investing in public services. But to tension the research budget against the NHS, or any other individual budget line, is to misrepresent how public spending choices are made. Why not tension research against the renewal of Trident, or subsidies to fossil fuel producers, if you want to evoke a different reaction?

Holmwood appears to believe that social science, and the UK wider research system, is adequately funded, and perhaps would like our funding to be cut further. But this view is not widely shared, and even a cursory attempt to engage with a cross-section of UK social scientists would paint a very different picture. Just yesterday, new evidence emerged from Science is Vital showing that the UK’s public expenditure on research as a percent of GDP has fallen to a 20-year low (the lowest among the G8).

In my role as chair of the Campaign for Social Science, I talk week in, week out to social scientists from all disciplines (we are currently part-way through a 20-university tour linked to this report) and the stories I hear, after four years of flat cash funding, are of plummeting success rates for highly-ranked proposals, bright early career researchers exiting the system because they can’t see a path to a permanent job, and a scaling back of creative, cross-cutting projects because they don’t make it through the funding system. Response mode success rates at ESRC dropped in the second half of 2014 to a new low of around 10 percent and new, more stringent demand management measures are now being put in place

How does Holmwood respond to these numbers? How much further does he think we should be cut over the next five years? How many social scientists is he prepared to sacrifice on the altar of his particular vision of non-instrumental academic purity? 10 percent? 30 percent? His article is short on answers to these very basic questions that, come what may, will need to be answered whoever is in government after May 7th.

3) Finally, and more trivially, the article is riddled with errors – both in its inaccurate portrayal of our report, but also in wrongly attributing the report to the Academy for Social Sciences, rather than the Campaign (we are separately governed entities), in wrongly dating the last election (it was May 2010, not 2009), and entirely mischaracterising the purdah issue as if it’s some kind of unilateral choice by ESRC to enforce these restrictions, rather than a set of rules laid down and rigidly enforced by the Cabinet Office across all publicly-funded bodies (including all seven Research Councils, HEFCE and Innovate UK).

So yes, by all means, let’s have a debate. But the social sciences, and UK research as a whole, need more than Holmwood’s flimsy, half-baked platitudes if they are to prosper over the next decade and beyond.

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James Wilsdon

James Wilsdon is an expert in science policy and the chair of the Campaign for Social Science. He is professor of science and democracy at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex.

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