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A Bleak Outlook For Social Science?

March 18, 2010

Outcomes of the ‘Crucial Role of Social Science’ debate

Social science is at the center of every major challenge the world faces, yet faces a tough future, according to a panel of senior academics and politicians speaking in London this week. They were taking part in a debate hosted by the British Academy and SAGE to explore how social science research can strengthen its involvement in policymaking, increase its impact, and combat potential public expenditure cuts.

While the social science disciplines play a crucial role in contributing to a better quality of life, the tone of the discussion was markedly bleak, with large funding cuts looming, and an ‘anti-research’ mood within government.

Speaking on the panel Professor Ian Diamond commented that social science lies at the heart of understanding and tackling the complex challenges of society. His comments were supported by SAGE’s Deputy Managing Director and Publishing Director, Ziyad Marar, who pointed to the government’s cabinet office priorities, which identify globalization, ageing, family, crime, climate change, and wellbeing as key areas. “These are all profoundly social science problems,” said Marar.

Professor Diamond also noted the fragility of the sector, due to a “grey and greying” membership, with the majority of active academics in several disciplines over the age of 55. His proposed solution for this was to support not just young career researchers, but to engage with the schools sector to make children want to become social scientists in the future.

A key message from all panelists was that role social science research can and does have direct relevance to policy making. Both Professor Harvey Goldstein and Sir Michael Rutter presented cases where studies on family and education have tested the validity of policies. A key issue was therefore how to ensure that the research outcomes were effectively communicated to policy makers.

Lord Richard Newby noted some of the issues facing social scientists, including the role of values in decision making, rather than evidence. He also cited the role of the public mood in influencing decisions. He viewed the current situation for social science as “pretty grim”, with the recent controversies surrounding climate change data marking an ‘anti-research’ mood within government. The situation is also made worse by a current focus on physical science subjects, where the spotlight for funding has recently shifted.

While the future looks bleak, there was much support for the value of the social sciences, and discussion of ways social researchers can help to promote the value of their work. Professor Diamond promoted the need for strong formal training, which would in turn help to advance better methodologies and interdisciplinary collaboration; Professor Goldstein promoted the need for stronger statistical training to provide better evidence; and Lord Newby promoted the need to engage with the civil service more directly, as a route in to influencing ministers. Further comment from the audience included the increased alliances between social scientists and other sciences; and the need to engage with the audit commission to call government to account on their policy decisions.

Towards A Better Tomorrow? The Crucial Role of Social Science took place on March 16th 2010 at the Royal Society, London. It was hosted by SAGE and the British Academy, as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science. Times Higher Education were media partners for the event.

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