Three Countries, Three Methods to Preserve Social Science

CFHSS advocacy panel
Panelists, from left: Chad Gaffield, Stephen Toope and Felice Levine.
“I don’t think I have to tell anyone in this room that the value of a broad-based social science and humanities education is, in our world, constantly being questioned – in the media, in the business community, by government, and sometimes by the public itself.” So began Stephen Toope, president of Canada’s Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. “And I think that is in tension with another reality, that in the 21st century, we’re facing – publics, governments, businesses have to grapple with issues that are right at the heart of social science and humanities work.”

Toope was moderating a panel that drew social science advocates from three countries – Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States – to the same stage to discuss preserving the disciplines’ sometimes tenuous hold on support from policymakers. “There’s an irony in the current mood – we require evidence-based, innovative solutions to really big problems and yet we’re being told that the very disciplines which can actually give us some traction around those issues are not that important.”

Toope’s remarks came earlier this month at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, held at the University of Ottawa. The congress, organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, combines roughly 70 annual meetings by Canadian scholarly associations under a single umbrella, which sets the stage for ample cross-pollination. In this instance, the cross-pollination in the congress’s Expo Hall was of strategies drawn from various national advocates: James Wilsdon, the chair of Britain’s Campaign for Social Science; Felice Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association; and Chad Gaffield, the former head of Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council.

A video of that session, “Advocating for the Social Sciences and Humanities: Lessons from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States,” appears below. The session was sponsored by SAGE (the parent of Social Science Space) and the federation:

The first speaker, Wilsdon, had the opportunity to engage directly with a government minister during the congress, and so appeared via a taped message. He discussed both the creation of the Campaign for Social Science, which was launched by Britain’s Academy of Social Sciences, and its focus: To marshal evidence and build coalitions of advocacy all the while demonstrating the contributions that social science makes to the culture, economy and policy of the nation.

In that vein, Wilsdon cited the recent publication, Business of People, which appeared before the UK general election and aimed to pull together all the arguments the campaign could make to demonstrate the value of the social sciences. He then outlined the three priorities of the Campaign:

  • Deepening policy and advocacy work, especially around spending on social science. He noted that in this vein, the campaign is now working on a follow-up publication, The Health of People, which demonstrates the importance of behavioral research on improving medical outcomes.
  • Widening and broadening the coalition of social science supporters. In particular, he explained, the Campaign has taken a cue from physical science and seeks more business voices speaking up.
  • Speaking up more in the public arena, especially among university systems and among practitioners.

Levine, a social psychologist, provided a quick history of how social science has resided, sometimes uneasily, in the U.S. government’s funding infrastructure, in particular at the National Science Foundation, where Levine herself spent a dozen years as a program director. NSF, she noted, isn’t the largest government research enterprise in dollars, “but it’s often a bellwether of problems and issues and challenges of what may be happening elsewhere.”

And in the United States, more so than in Canada or Britain, social science is facing threats, as seen with efforts to constrain the traditional amount of social science funding from NSF. Levine noted that various umbrella groups, such as the Consortium of Social science Associations, the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics (Social Science Space partners all), arose to defend this turf via direct advocacy.

Levine described how the goal ultimately is to change the conversation from defending against the cyclical attacks she’d outlined to enshrining social science as worthy for funding for all time. “How frequently do we envision the ‘S’ in STEM to really include the social sciences?” she asked. “If I have one goal in whatever shelf-life remains [in my career], it is that policymakers and even those in our sciences and the public understand that the ‘S’ is indeed inclusive of the notion that science is one and that science is best run in an integrated way.”

Tactics she mentioned include expanding the range of groups the coalition works with in the higher education community, and engaging other sectors, such as the business community, foundations, and the military.

Gaffield offered a different, and more optimistic, assessment of social science’s present and its future, based in large part in how integral ‘informal’ social science and humanities is in society as a whole, which he identified as the “unprecedented interest in human thought and behavior.”

And so, he insisted, “The era we’re in has the potential to be a golden age of the social sciences and the humanities; I think as well things could go horribly wrong.”

Gaffield diagnosed one problem in how social sciences and humanities fall down in creating this golden age. “We talk in terms of, ‘You know, people don’t get us. We are not understood,’ and then we say, ‘Well, the solution to that is we have to educate them. Let me sit you down and tell you. And if you really got it, you would think about these things differently.’

The problem, he insinuated, isn’t in ‘them.’ It’s in ‘us.’ He described a “most unsatisfying” experience from the 1990s when a university collaboration trooped up Parliament Hill to extol the glories of higher education, much like the advocacy day the recently seen on Washington, D.C. “The poor MP would sit there – they were running in from many, many things – they were tolerant and they were nice, ‘Yes I must make my next meeting,’ and ‘goodbye.’” In one meeting, Gaffield asked what one member of Parliament rushing in had been working on, the politician answered it had been a hearing on what to do with young offenders. “Happily, I knew something about that,” he explained, and asked if he could bring some researchers by to talk about current scholarship on the issue. “All of a sudden, I had his attention.”

Gaffield’s prescription for advocacy, then, is to “start with listening. … Are we really taking serious the challenge of understanding human behavior? This is our mandate.”

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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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