Social Science’s Impact on Society, Circa 2065: Gioia Barnbrook


Winning essays

Overall winner
“CITY Inc.” | James Fletcher, King’s College London
Highly Commended
“They know how much oxygen I breathe, which is fine by me” | Josephine Go Jefferies, University of Nottingham
“After ‘posh and white’: the 50 year slog towards achieving educational equality” | Elizabeth Houghton, Lancaster University
“Doubting gender. Or why it is best to leave certain questions unanswered” | Kristin Hübner, University of Warwick
“People will soon be at the very heart of law making” | Louise Thompson, University of Hull (PhD)/ University of Surrey (present)
“One morning in 2065” | Matjaz Vidmar, University of Edinburgh
“Policing in times of financial austerity and beyond: The role of psychology in maximising efficiency” | Rebecca Wheeler, Goldsmiths University of London
“Navigating private life in a public world” | Sam Miles, Queen Mary, University of London
“Keeping pace with the ‘perennial gale of competition’” | Samuel Ian Quigg, University of Surrey

This year, Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council asked early career social scientists to try their hand at what might be called social-science fiction, looking at what strides their particular fields might achieve in the next 50 years. And like the best traditional science fiction, the winning essays were grounded in the evidence and research of today extended by smart analysis of what the future can hold.

Science fiction, err, speculative fiction, is in the business of predicting what the world will look like in years hence. And the best science fiction gives equal weight to both parts of its moniker: science and fiction.

The World in 2065, as the contest was named, received an array of submissions covering a wide variety of topics addressing key issues affecting society such as climate change, gender inequality, education and the law. The contest was co-sponsored by SAGE (the parent of Social Science Space), which like the ESRC is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, and which again like the ESRC is busily writing its own narrative for another successful 50 years.

“Science communication is currently something of a buzz phrase in the academic world, so it was particularly interesting to see how this crop of up-and-coming scientists set about encapsulating their hopes and fears for their disciplines over the next 50 years in under 800 words,” Tash Reith-Banks, one of four judges in the competition, wrote in The Guardian, where she is the production editor for the Science desk. The other three judges were Alan Gillespie, the chair of ESRC since 2009; Miranda Nunhofer, executive director for SAGE; and Martin Ince, a freelance journalist specializing in research and higher education.

Over the next 10 weeks Social Science Space will present the 10 shortlisted essays: the overall winner, two essays honored as ‘highly commended,’ and the seven other essays on the shortlist.

Here, we present the highly commended essay “The World in 2065: A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science” by Gioia Barnbrook at the University of Aberdeen. You can read her full entry below:

The World in 2065: A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science

By Gioia Barnbrook

It is one of the most iconic visual representations of climate change: a lone polar bear stands on a thin ice floe, surrounded by a sea so grey it reaches the horizon and simply merges with the sky. In some versions the polar bear instead perches on rocks, its fur scraggly and muddy, standing protectively over cubs. Either way, the intended impact is the same; the picture tells us that these are the victims of the melting Arctic. It is rarer, at the moment at least, to see images of the human cost of climate change. We see its impacts primarily in terms of the natural world, and rarely think in terms of social costs.

Gioia Barnbrook
Gioia Barnbrook

Communities in the Arctic, and the researchers who work alongside them, are already noticing drastic changes in their environment – rising temperatures are affecting sea ice and making traditional subsistence hunting activities far more precarious and dangerous; people have died travelling by snowmobile across previously solid ice that rising temperatures have made fragile. At the other extreme, record high temperatures across parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East have led to fatalities. At present we in the UK are protected by our location, but we know from past experience that the intricacies of global markets, resource trading and politics mean that difficulties in other parts of the world have global impact. What happens in any one part of the world can have global ramifications.

If, for the moment, we still think primarily in terms of the natural consequences of climate change, in 2065 it will be impossible to ignore its social and humanitarian impacts: food and water shortages, mass migration and resource wars seem likely, coupled with large-scale political and economic unrest. Perhaps it is fitting that some of the most popular books and films of the last decade have been set in dystopian futures. Dreams of tomorrow, once populated by hoverboards, flying cars and holidays to Mars, now seem far less hopeful: they no longer come to us in the technicolour joy of the sixties and seventies, but in a muted, washed-out sepia.
From this vantage point, the future looks decidedly bleak, and we may well wonder what use we will have for the social sciences in a world of catastrophic environmental decline and change.

This would be a mistake. The social sciences are unique in the way they enable us to understand the complexity of the conditions, networks and interconnections that influence human behaviour, on both the large and small scale. This information will be essential in aiding governments, non-governmental organisations and policymakers to develop appropriate responses to the humanitarian and social crises brought by climate change. Social sciences that emphasise long-term qualitative research, such as my own discipline of anthropology, will be of particular value in developing regional and group-specific responses. Anthropologists working in the Canadian Arctic and sub-arctic region have already begun to collaborate with indigenous communities and natural scientists in documenting the impacts of climate change and developing possible resilience and adaptation strategies. These studies also show the importance of interdisciplinary approaches that involve local, scientific and social scientific perspectives: in the future we will be struggling with issues that have both natural and social causes and impacts, and we will need research that can gather these perspectives. Sustained ethnographic research, surveys and statistical modelling will help us to develop inter-disciplinary approaches that can do justice to the complexity of these challenges. In 2065 we will need the social sciences more than ever before.

Meeting the environmental and social challenges of the next 50 years will not be easy or simple. It will require innovative interdisciplinary approaches that can bring different stakeholders together. It may be necessary to challenge current disciplinary divisions and rethink how we structure funding in order to make interdisciplinary collaboration easier. It will be necessary for us reflect on the true wider purpose of the social sciences, and of academic research. As researchers we can play an integral role in attending to the many complex challenges of the future. In the last 50 years social scientists have done exactly that, helping to shape our national and international policies. The world of 2065 will be drastically different to the world today, and to the world of 50 years ago, but the benefits social scientists can bring remain the same. Far from being obsolete, I think that 2065 will bring a robust and re-invigorated social science that can play a vital role in tackling these complex environmental and social challenges, for the benefit of people and the environment.

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