2020 Proved Value of Social Science to Wider World

Road into city with 2021 in foreground
The year 2020 proved a hard road to travel, but we’re almost through it. With the help of social and behavioral science, may 2021 prove an easier trek. (Image: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay)

On the 9th of December, SAGE Publishing co-hosted our annual lecture alongside the Campaign for Social Science, featuring two brilliant speakers: professor Trish Greenhalgh and Dr. Milly Zimeta. There’s nothing like an annual lecture to get you thinking about all the stuff that has happened since the last one…  And oh my, what a year 2020 has been! I think I speak for most of us when I say that it’s not a year that I would return to willingly. It’s been a year of fear, uncertainty and, for far too many, a year of profound grief. 

But 2020 is also the year the global scientific community came together to deliver an extraordinary scientific achievement – the development of a number of highly effective vaccines for COVID, produced in under 12 months. As The Atlantic’s Ed Yong writes in “How Science Beat the Virus,” “In fall of 2019, exactly zero scientists were studying COVID‑19, because no one knew the disease existed. (…) As of this writing, the biomedical library PubMed lists more than 74,000 COVID-related scientific papers—more than twice as many as there are about polio, measles, cholera, dengue, or other diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries. (…) No other disease has been scrutinized so intensely, by so much combined intellect, in so brief a time.”

2020 is also the year that the U.S. president said that thing about bleach, while we all took it upon ourselves to get educated on R numbers and exponential growth. It’s a year where misinformation has been rife, but it’s also the year that an estimated 270 million people around the globe read articles published by The Conversation, a news website where all of the articles are written by academics.

This year our TVs and newspapers have been filled with academic experts helping us to understand what’s happening around us.  Epidemiologist, virologists and public health experts, but also social scientists, like professor Stephen Reicher, who has emerged as an authoritative voice in the debates over lockdown policies in the UK. When SAGE released the book Reicher co-edited on the psychology of COVID-19, Together Apart, for free here on Social Science Space, it was downloaded 50,000 times. 

And 2,500 people registered for our annual lecture entitled, “Give Me Back My Fact: How can social science help us survive the post-truth pandemic? And I think what this all tells us is that in an age of memes and misinformation, and in a time of crisis and uncertainty, there’s a huge countering hunger for information that is serious, in-depth and produced by, yes, experts. 

And it’s important that those experts include social scientists. If there is one thing that has become abundantly clear through this pandemic it is that a pandemic, like so many of the other really big and pressing issues facing us such as structural racism or climate change, are not problems to be faced by one discipline or sector alone. Of course a global pandemic is a medical crisis, but there’s a big difference between developing a vaccine and vaccination. And that difference is fundamentally social. 

This year our social world has been reshaped. And recovery from this pandemic will require disciplines to work together, and the social sciences are essential to this effort. This is evidenced by the fact that, of the more than 600 RAPID COVID-19 grants awarded by the United States’ National Science Foundation, almost 20 percent went to social and behavioral science researchers. In the UK, the Economic and Social Research Council has funded over 170 projects on COVID, and has set up two observatories that will bring research and policy together to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 and accelerate the UK’s recovery.

I think there’s no doubt that as a result of the events of 2020, the research agenda of social scientists will change profoundly. And, as awful as this year has been, it does feel like there is a huge opportunity here for the whole to become greater than the sum of its parts, and for us to work together across disciplines and sectors so that specialists can bring their expertise and insight together,  not just to cope with the current crisis, but to help promote a regrowth of culture, society and economy in ways that enable future generations to flourish. Here is to a 2021 that builds on the hard won achievements of 2020, while hopefully being a bit kinder to us all.

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Katie Metzler

Katie Metzler is vice president of books and social science innovation at Sage. She has more than 15 years of experience in the publishing industry and has led cross-functional teams to bring new digital products from discovery to delivery.

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