Science case study

Better understanding of the ‘knowledge context’ within which firms operate will help translate R&D into products and profits. Social scientists are evaluating ‘clusters’ – for example, in ultra-low-emission vehicle construction or television and online animation. Study of public values and attitudes is vital, too, especially when innovation prompts uncertainties and concerns, as with genetically modified crops or shale gas extraction. Innovation is increasingly understood not as a race to optimise a single pathway but a collaborative process for exploring different options and trajectories. Andy Stirling points out how global industries are now growing around once-marginal technologies such as wind turbines and super-energy-efficiency buildings that owe their origin to work by grassroots social movements objecting to mainstream technologies.16 Mariana Mazzucato’s study of Apple and the iPhone highlights how much the success and profitability of private companies often depend on defence and other government spending.17

Social science feeds a growing evidence base on the role of the state in supporting R&D. Jonathan Haskel established that investment in intangible knowledge has greater productivity-enhancing effects than previously thought, and that the largest benefits to general R&D and economic growth arise from research sponsored by the research councils.18

Nesta, which changed its status from a public body to a charity in 2012, has become a valued broker and synthesiser of research and practice in the UK and elsewhere, understanding that advances in technology and knowledge and the processes by which they are applied are fundamentally social phenomena.