Investment

New Report Finds Social Science Key Ingredient in Innovation Recipe

January 18, 2024 18

A new report from Britain’s Campaign for Social Science argues that the key to success for physical science and technology research is a healthy helping of relevant social science. In Reimagining the Recipe for Research & Innovation: The Secret Sauce of Social Science, the authors “suggest that there is a critical yet under-explored role for the social sciences within the UK’s research, development and innovation system, as a ‘secret sauce’ which can elevate research into a recipe that is genuinely unique and world-leading.”

The 60-page report released January 18 is published by Sage (the parent of Social Science Space) and co-authored by James Wilsdon FAcSS, a professor of research policy at University College London and executive director of the Research on Research Institute; Kathryn Weber-Boer, the D&A Hub – technical product specialist at Digital Science; Juergen Wastl, vice president of research evaluation & global challenges at Digital Science; and Ed Bridges, is head of policy and public affairs at the Academy of Social Sciences, which houses the campaign.

Relying heavily on citation-based metrics (using Digital Science’s Dimensions’ database to show the full interlacing of social and behavioral sciences with the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math), the authors aim to demonstrate the need for social science to be ‘baked into’ the entire research and research policy process. This idea of a symbiotic relationship isn’t new terrain: their review found that almost half of UK policy documents in from 2012 to 2022 drew from grants that were either related to social science or combined social science and STEM.

Reviewing the idea that social sciences enable whole-systems thinking — the first of four “themes” that animate the report (and which lead to four recommendations) – they stress that social scientists shouldn’t merely observe STEM research. They need active, and early, involvement.

 “[T]there is a danger of the social sciences being seen as an add-on or afterthought to STEM research – or, indeed, as an ‘ELSIfication’, whereby social scientists’ contributions are limited to identifying or ameliorating the potentially negative ethical, legal or societal implications (ELSI) of scientific or technological advances.  Our argument in this report is that social scientists have an essential role to play across the entire recipe, catalysing the development of new flavours, rather than simply being a garnish to a dish created by STEM.”

Other themes explored in Reimagining the Recipe for Research & Innovation include that social sciences are critical for good policy development, underpin “smart and responsible innovation,” and are essential to international collaboration and tackling shared global challenges.

Addressing social sciences’ essentialness, the authors argue that “nowhere was this more apparent in recent times than during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the social sciences and their understanding of society were critical to the efficacy of vaccine take-up, lockdown restrictions and social distancing.”

To flesh out these themes – and to piggyback on both existing policy frameworks and reviews in the United Kingdom – the authors offer four recommendations, two focused on investment. The report details that while public money for research and development has risen by a quarter in the last three years, “in relative terms, the UK under-invests in research and innovation, particularly from the private sector, whilst public investment remains vulnerable to wider economic pressures.”

The report calls for the government department known as UK Research & Innovation, or UKRI to continue to ramp up spending on interdisciplinary research, training and leadership (especially using the Economic and Social Research Council as a vehicle)  – action already endorsed in initiatives such as  Sir David Grant’s 2022 review of the department.

The second investment-related recommendation calls for scaling up spending specifically in the academic research ecosystem. The recommendation namechecks initiatives such as the Universities Policy Engagement Network and the Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement.

The third recommendation focuses on policies surrounding emerging technologies – think artificial intelligence, for example – while the last calls for “active participation” in pan-European research collaborations such as Horizon Europe or the transition into the European Union’s next Framework Programme.

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