Social Science, STEM and Career Skills: Not ‘Either/Or’ But ‘Both/And’

Are they physical scientists or social scientists hard at work? Yeah, we can’t tell either. (Photo: Matias Malka/Unsplash)

As Lina Ashour has recently written, SAGE Publishing has helped make possible a report by the UK’s Campaign for Social Science on the role of the social sciences in UK private sector businesses. The report, Vital Business: the Essential Role of Social Sciences in the UK Private Sector, was published on September 14.

So why would we choose to write a report, based on intensive interviews in a small number of UK businesses, about the role of the social sciences in the private sector?

Leaving aside issues of interest mainly to UK audiences, there are a number of reasons why social scientists world-wide might think our reasons for doing so matter.

First, most of us are used to justifications for social science that stress its importance for social and economic policy, and for practice-based interventions about ‘what works’ (and what doesn’t). Globally, social science has a rich and proud record here, and one that has been given renewed prominence in the context of COVID-19, both in the United Kingdom and internationally

But as most academics teaching social sciences at universities know, a great deal of the impact of their work comes through what students learn and go on to do. By any measure, that should take account of the fact that a sizable proportion of people studying the social sciences will go on to work in the private sector, in a wide variety of roles. Ignoring this puts us on the back foot when governments around the world adopt policies that affect the social sciences (such as those related to funding policies for social science teaching and research). The Campaign for Social Science undertook the work for Vital Business in that context.

Vital Business cover

Vital Business is based on eight detailed case studies of UK businesses. It covers a range of different sectors, including businesses that are often thought of as science-based (STEM) enterprises. The findings challenge some of the common myths about the usefulness of social science knowledge and skills in employment.

We approached each of these companies and conducted intensive interviews, often with more than one person in the firm. The report presents many of the findings in the words of the interviewees themselves – we were seeking to present the most impartial and accurate picture possible.

The report shows that social sciences are both widely used and valued by businesses: in leadership roles; in running the business day-to-day (including finance, HR and so on); to understand consumers and markets and regulations; in strategic planning and risk analysis; and even in R&D, including often working jointly with STEM scientists.

For instance, an interviewee from Cisco, a large multinational specializing in the design, production and sales of digital technologies, told us:

‘There is a huge benefit to having people with social science skills. We have to think about the implications that our technology will have and explain them to organisations – from realising the benefits through to managing the challenges of change. This requires input from an array of social scientists specialising in business, communications, economics, HR, law, marketing, operations and politics to make our technology compelling…. To be successful, technology needs social science input.’

And Ashley Parry Jones, director of planning at global engineering consultancy WSP, said:

‘As an engineering consultancy, WSP has many projects that will be more engineering led, but social scientists play an essential role in providing challenge and ensure solutions are applicable in a real-world situation. They provide a different voice and a different way of thinking. Engineers work to establish technical standards. Whereas social scientists are optimizers – it’s not about perfection, but about an optimal decision that satisfies multiple parameters at once. That is a very different type of conversation, and I think that is a really useful challenge that social scientists provide.’

Whether the business was a services-based company (like Ipsos MORI or business services firm Deloitte or reinsurance brokerage Willis Towers Watson) or a manufacturer (like Diageo) or an energy company (like Shell), some common lessons stood out.

In looking to the future – and most of these we spoke to were taking the long view, even as COVID-19 raged around them – almost all of them predicted more and deeper cross-disciplinary working. As Lord Bob Kerslake told us when we showed him the report “The challenges facing business now are as much societal as they are about the market,” or, we would add, about technology.

But what may be more surprising to some is that though their general ability to analyse evidence, or their wider ‘softer’ skills (curiosity, ability to communicate and so on), were valued, social science graduates’ substantive knowledge and methodological skills were also often deployed in their work. Political science graduates and geographers were, for example, often mentioned as particularly important to analyzing risks, including geopolitical risk, and in strategic planning. Graduates from economics, demography, geography, psychology, and sociology were often mentioned in understanding marketing, behavior in different circumstances, the impact of regulatory regimes, and so on. The content of what these employees know matters to their employers.

We believe some important implications follow from our report.

First, higher education policy should recognize that for businesses to succeed they need employees with diverse skills and disciplinary backgrounds. We encourage policy makers not to take an over-simple view that only STEM subjects matter to the success of businesses. What matters to business is having the right skills across the range of their work. It is not ‘either/ or’ but ‘both/ and’.

Second, the evidence suggests that number and data skills among social science graduates are particularly valued. This is partly because it helps them communicate better with colleagues and it is increasingly part of business management. A particular contribution of social scientists with number and data skills was not only that they could use data, but that they could question data intelligently (What were the sources? How reliable is it? How can we piece together the most accurate possible picture from partial evidence? How can we explain the findings to others?)

Finally, we believe that, in the UK at least, social science has a ‘brand’ problem. It was striking that in some cases our approaches to the companies started with their questions about what the social sciences are. When we explained the wide range of disciplines it covers (business-related subjects, law, economics, demography, geography, political science, psychology, sociology and others), they were happy to take part. While the term ‘STEM’ now has widespread currency, and people understand what the arts and humanities are, they often do not know what ‘social science’ is. The businesses we looked at often use social science so deeply and so many different ways that they do not label it all as ‘social science’.

That is a challenge we should all consider addressing.

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Sharon Witherspoon

Sharon Witherspoon is head of policy at the Academy of Social Sciences. She was at the Nuffield Foundation, a grant-giving endowed charitable trust, for 19 years, first heading its programs of social research and social policy, and then for three years as director. Before that, she was a practicing social researcher at NatCen and the Policy Studies Institute, designing and analysing large-scale social surveys. She was awarded an MBE for services to social science in 2008, received the British Academy President’s Medal in 2011, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by University College London in 2015 for services to social sciences and law.

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