With COVID and Climate Change Showing Social Science’s Value, Why Cut it Now?

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What are the three biggest challenges Australia faces in the next five to ten years? What role will the social sciences play in resolving these challenges?

The Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia asked these questions in a discussion paper earlier this year. The backdrop to this review is cuts to social science disciplines around the country, with teaching taking priority over research.

One Group of Eight university, for example, proposes to cut the number of anthropology and sociology staff from nine to one. Positions across the social sciences are to be reclassified from teaching and research to teaching-only.

In addition, research funding is increasingly going to applied research. The federal government wants research that has greater engagement with industry and can be shown to contribute to the national interest.

The confluence of funding changes and loss of revenue from fee-paying international students comes on the back of other ominous long-term trends. Since the 1980s, successive federal governments have undermined perceptions of the importance of the social sciences compared with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

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This article by Rochelle Spencer originally appeared on The Conversation, a Social Science Space partner site, under the title “In a time of COVID and climate change, social sciences are vital, but they’re on university chopping blocks”

The latest policy involves a major shift in the purpose of Australian universities — to produce “job-ready graduates,” with more emphasis on industry engagement. The restructuring of funding is touted as an investment in the sciences. Fees have increased for social science students.

Today’s problems call for social science expertise

All this is happening at a time, during a pandemic, when the social sciences could not be more relevant and necessary. The challenges we face make it vital that the sciences work in partnership with the social sciences.

The pandemic has highlighted issues such as attitudes to vaccination and behavior change, fake news and the politics of science, the vulnerability of people in care, roles and responsibilities of the state and the citizen, and gender disparities of the pandemic’s impact, to name a few. To tackle such issues we need to understand the social and cultural diversity underpinning people’s beliefs and values and how these interact during a global emergency. That’s the work of social scientists.

For example, gender analyses of the impacts of COVID-19 have revealed:

  • women are 22 percent more likely to lose their jobs
  • 20 million girls worldwide will never return to school
  • a paltry 23 percent of emergency aid targets women’s economic security.

These impacts are likely to be long-lasting due to systemic gender inequality. But to remedy such impacts we need to understand the context of cultural and social structures.

It is social science research that reveals how the pandemic is compounding the precarity and inequality that women face. Around the world cultural norms restrict women’s independence and mobility, and burden them with unpaid care work and unequal access to resources. Women are disproportionately concentrated in the social, care and education sectors that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

Beyond the pandemic, the social sciences equip students to tackle the complex problems we face in the 21st century. Social sciences provide the skill set to:

  • understand the nature of individuals, communities and cultures (the human condition)
  • gain a broad comparative perspective on questions and concerns of the world today
  • appreciate how the crises of this century impact how we live.

Fields of study include development studies, sustainability, anthropology, sociology, gender and race, Indigenous studies, human security, political science and economics. This makes the social sciences directly relevant to countless pressing issues. These include the pandemic and vaccine hesitancy, climate change, race and gender relations, inequality and poverty, mass migration and refugees, and authoritarianism.

Events in the news give us a sense of the complex social phenomena that require social science analysis to be fully understood. Examples include Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, March 4 Justice, the aged care royal commission, community support for the Tamil asylum-seeker family from Biloela, and the Federal Court victory for a group of teenagers that means the environment minister has a duty of care to protect children from the harms of carbon dioxide emissions.

Anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists provide the evidence that enables us to apply the solutions to globally important issues in local settings. For example, we have the science to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and create vaccines. But how do we achieve the social and behavioral change required for sanitation, vaccine uptake, mask-wearing, social distancing and so on? In short, how do we translate that science into good public policy?

In another example, it’s one thing to understand climate science, but how do we then ensure people know what they can do about it in their everyday lives? Expert analysis and translation by social scientists gives us insights into why certain social change occurs or doesn’t.

Job-ready? Social science graduates are

Social scientists have perhaps never been in greater demand. They are employed across public and private sectors, in environmental sustainability, community and international development, refugee and humanitarian agencies, health and education services, business and social enterprise, minerals and resource development, agriculture and land management, politics and policy. Employers value social science graduates for their analytical skills, cultural awareness, effective communication and language skills.

Indeed, arts, humanities and social science graduates are more employable than science graduates.

The pandemic should have reminded us why we need the insights from the social and behavioral sciences to help align human behavior with the advice of experts. We have become acutely aware that pandemics are complex social phenomena. Divestment from the social sciences at this precarious moment in time is remarkably short-sighted.

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Rochelle Spencer

Rochelle Spencer is founding co-director of Murdoch University's Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability, an inter- and trans-disciplinary research hub that shapes new thinking and practice around three core streams: development; sustainability; nonprofit management and leadership.

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