David Willetts affirmed his belief that the social sciences are vital for tackling our society’s most important issues, announcing new funding for university students and setting out research areas for the future.
Mr Willetts, the Universities and Science Minister, was speaking at the inaugural Campaign for Social Science annual lecture in central London, before an audience of 120 academics, policy-makers and journalists.
“I fully support your Campaign and your mission to educate the public on what social science is and why studying it is worthwhile and exciting – it’s a mark of our humanity that we want to understand how we live in society,” he said.
“What I like about the Campaign is that it’s essentially a positive endeavour – it’s not based on a feeling of vulnerability or that social science is under threat – it’s confident that there are lots of great things about social science, and there is lots of great social science going on in this country.
“We should be proud of social science and celebrate it, and encourage its further growth and encourage people to engage with the fascinating observations we get from social science.”
He said that in terms of the quality and quantity of social science, “we are second only to the US” and that its breadth and inter-disciplinary method of working were strengths. “There are no significant problems in the world now that are going to be addressed and tackled by people working within one disciplinary framework and without learning and cooperating with others in other disciplines, be it climate change or demographic change or terrorism or whatever. They all require to be addressed by people coming from a range of different disciplines.”
Mr Willett said that there were four areas “where there is still a lot of work to be done by social science.” He said researchers should tackle “inter-generational equity – the challenge that ‘can we be confident that the younger generation have the same opportunities that the older generation enjoyed?’.”
He also said that there were technological areas where UK had advantages, such as robotics and ‘smart cities’ which were also a “massive issue in social science – all of them need inputs from social scientists and moral philosophers and others”.
More work was needed to understand properly the areas of risk and hazard and how society handles uncertainty, and economists needed to develop new ways of understanding behaviour, such as the work by Richard Layard on happiness and the work on ‘nudge’ methods of changing behaviour.
He also said that it was a matter of “great frustration to me that we do not yet have the means to answer the question ‘how much social mobility do you buy by spending £100 million at different stages of the life cycle?'”. He said there was a presumption that intervening during childhood was the best way, but “I don’t share that view myself”. Instead he thought that the government tackled problems best when they presented themselves, not 15 years before this.
Mr Willetts gave examples of how social science was currently being used by government. English housing survey work had provided the basis for policies such as ‘Help to buy’ and ‘Right to buy’ and the Dilnot Commission on care had been followed by a government policy to cover care costs over the £75,000 threshold.
The Vickers Banking Commission had pointed to the need to separate riskier banking from high street banking, and research on consumer behaviour had led to tighter restrictions on the way budget airlines sold flights.
“There are lots of practical examples of social science being put to use to inform public policy,” Mr Willetts said.
He pointed to the setting up of the What Works centres to gather and share robust evidence on health, education, crime reduction, early intervention, ageing and local economic growth, so that £200 billion of public spending was influenced by social science research. He said that Britain’s longitudinal studies were world-class and used by other countries, such as China, for their own research in this area.
He also spoke about the benefits of universities to society as a whole. By the end of the week his department – Business, Innovation & Skills – would publish a collation of research to show that higher education led to benefits for society such as higher rates of research and development, a bigger tax base, improved life expectancy and higher levels of tolerance, as well as benefits for individuals taking degrees.
He said that the government was slowly breaking down “tiresome” barriers to further research in this area by integrating data from schools, further education, universities, the Student Loan Company and HMRC, though primary legislation would be needed for some of this.
There was a need for infrastructure development to handle data and he had secured £189 million from Whitehall to develop this capacity.
“But we must also have properly qualified people to exploit and use the data. At present we have a serious shortage of social science graduates with the right quantitative skills to evaluate evidence and analyse data.” Several hundred thousand students would benefit from a better level of maths training, he said, including social scientists.
He announced that he would be giving an extra £800,000 funding over three years for the Sigma programme, which helps students to develop the mathematical skills they need for their courses by running training centres, workshops and conferences. He was also pleased that a new ‘Q-step’ programme for training social science students in quantitative skills had been announced.
Mr Willetts said social science was set at the heart of government. “We have now got a chief scientist in every department and the chief scientists are really the chief empiricists – they come from a range of different disciplines. What they are essentially there to do is ensure the relevant evidence [including social science] is put before ministers. I personally think we have got a quite a good structure.” When asked if the overall government chief scientist could be a social scientist, he replied: “I wouldn’t rule that out.”
Mr Willetts was speaking at the Department for Business Innovation & Skills Conference Centre in central London on ‘Where next for social science? The agenda beyond 2015’.
The event was introduced by Professor James Wilsdon, Campaign Chair, who said: “It’s an important evening for the Campaign – the Campaign is still relatively young, set up a couple of years ago but growing fast in terms of membership, momentum and impact – this is the first of what we hope will be an annual series of these lectures that we are very pleased to be hosting in partnership with SAGE.”
He said the event marked the launch of the Campaign’s report on graduate employment which had corrected myths about employability among social science graduates.
SAGE’s Global Publishing Director, Ziyad Marar, said it was “very reassuring” to see a healthy climate for social science in the UK, particularly considering the attacks on it in the US, with restrictions on funding of political science.
Photos below, clockwise from top left: Professor Wilsdon; Mr Willetts talking to audience members; Mr Willetts holding up a brochure from China which references a UK cohort study; Mr Marar