Part 1: Social Science Now


UK parliamentary elections this year and the spending review to follow pose tough questions, at home and abroad. Debates about how to manage public finance, reshape taxation and spending and boost productivity, training and returns to skills all sit under the overarching question of how to organise the state and markets to realise the maximum potential of individuals and communities. How diminished would public and policy debate be without the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), a leading example of applied social science?

After the referendum in Scotland the distribution of power between centre and locality is fluid. Questions about the constitution intersect with UK membership of the European Union, which, for many, pivots on migration and the pace of economic and social change, both at home and globally. Add intergenerational justice and the relative claims of young and old, gender and sexuality, regional instability, terrorism, online data and, last in this sequence but evidently not least, climate change – where understanding attitudes and behaviour is as challenging as the physics. All the above are first-order questions for social science researchers and practitioners.

The research councils call for ‘novel, multidisciplinary approaches to solve big research challenges’ such as the digital economy, energy, food security and lifelong health and wellbeing. Whether compiled by government horizon scanners, corporate strategists or consultancies scoping sales and investment, such lists have one thing in common. No theme can be addressed through a single body of knowledge or discipline, certainly not just by ‘science’ as it used, narrowly, to be defined. The goal has to be diversity of knowledge in which understanding markets, behaviour and attitudes (towards new products and processes) matches technological and research breakthroughs.1 – link to reference As Sir Mark Walport, the GCSA, puts it in his annual report for 2014: as we learn how to modify our physical environment we build social and economic structures, and we must invest in understanding their sustainability.2


The UK is predominantly a service economy in which comparative advantage is held by insurance, finance, communications and business services, as much as pharmaceuticals or aerospace. Growth depends on these sectors innovating and improving productivity. Yet if 79 per cent of gross value added comes from the service sector, only 8 per cent of business services firms have cooperative agreements with potential suppliers of insight into organisational performance, indicating the scope for productivity enhancement.3

Social science has to be recognised as central in combating infectious disease. For the World Health Organization and donors, the Ebola crisis in West Africa demands clinical expertise, better understanding of pathogens and investment in drugs. But defeating disease also hinges on better understanding people – those highly complex animals – and their communities. As well as doctors and nurses the campaign needs experts in how attitudes (towards hand washing, say) are shaped, along with specialists in administration, in markets and drug pricing, in why states fail and how they might be rebuilt and, delicate but profound, how leadership and funding structures can create and sustain the dedication of doctors and the courage of nurses.

This is why the Ministry of Defence (MoD) (to take another example) looks to BAE Systems plc and other suppliers for military hardware, but also to social scientists in thinktanks and universities. In the words of Rear Admiral John Kingwell, head of the MoD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, no security and defence challenge will be addressed simply by armed force: ‘we really need to invest in understanding the world’.4


Such knowledge is nurtured in a rich ecosystem of teachers, trainers, disseminators, researchers and practitioners, communicating through learned societies and journals, reflected in Figure 1.

As well as continuing investment, the UK would benefit from more strategic thinking about the contribution of the social sciences. The GCSA should produce a strategic framework for the social sciences, encompassing research, data and the supply of trained people. Areas of strategic priority for the next five years include data skills, macroeconomics and equipping more social scientists to collaborate across the disciplines.

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Some years ago Sir Alan Wilson recommended broadening the scope of the Strategic Forum for the Social Sciences.5 This should be reconstituted to support the GCSA in preparing the new strategic framework, by gathering evidence and monitoring the pipeline of social scientists moving into business, government, universities and research. The Strategic Forum should bring together government, including the devolved administrations and arm’s length agencies, the big charities, the ESRC, the ONS, the Academy of Social Sciences and the British Academy, with lines to the devolved administrations. Strategic thinking is particularly required around data, joining collection and archiving with improved quantitative skills and opportunities for innovation and cost effective public service delivery (through the exploitation of administrative data).

Within Whitehall, cross-government thinking about demands for evidence and analysis should extend to training, data and international research collaboration. Supply is a pressing theme. Social science students extend the talent pool for data analysis and interpretation. Improving their quantitative and analytic skills is a task for the universities, learned societies, national academies, the Department for Education (DfE), the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the devolved administrations and the Nuffield Foundation (which has instigated the Q-Step programme, supported by the ESRC and the higher education funding councils). Loans for taught master’s degrees, agreed by the coalition government, must ensure fair access across the social sciences. Social science expertise is needed to evaluate costs and the effects of the policy on, for example, social mobility and earnings and in meeting strategic needs.


Social science is collaborating ever more closely with computing, mathematics, the life and physical sciences and engineering; cross-disciplinary work is becoming the normal way of understanding the world. Comprehending markets, customers, products, competitors and employees is a precondition of commercial success, says Anand Anandalingam of Imperial College Business School, welcoming KPMG UK’s £20 million investment in a centre of advanced analytics, drawing on engineers, computer scientists and specialists in ‘social arrangements’, inside and outside business firms.6 Social scientists cooperate with clinicians in health, and with geologists, biologists and operational research specialists. An instance is the Wellcome Trust award to Sarah Cunningham-Burley and Anne Kerr to examine how cancer patients and their carers and families understand recent rapid changes in the sciences of cancer, working with researchers and clinicians. The National Institute for Health Research is working with social scientists on patients’ experience of community hospitals; the Medical Research Council funds sociologists to investigate factors behind poor sleep patterns. For the Home Office, ‘science’ means engineers and criminologists working together with manufacturers to make cars more difficult to steal. The Keeping Warm in Later Life project melds knowledge about income, housing design, boilers and the expertise of health visitors. Without a better grasp of people, technological advances may be frustrated or blocked, and fail to realise their potential.

In the next cycle of research assessment, as David Willetts, the former minister for higher education and science said, ‘cross-disciplinary working will need greater recognition’.7 We recommend that funding councils allow researchers to submit outputs to more than one assessment panel, to support interdisciplinary ways of working. There will be important lessons to draw from the funding councils’ evaluation of REF 2014 and the review of the role of metrics in research assessment.


Within any strategy for science and innovation, social science plays a dual role. Social science is embedded in science. Its pursuit of knowledge must be supported along with other disciplines. But social science also provides understanding of how science and innovation work: the science of science. Social scientists are establishing the links between spending on research and education and GDP growth,8 and how GDP should be defined and measured in the light of changing ideas about wellbeing.9

Innovation in the life and physical sciences and in software and machines depends on parallel innovation in socio-economic processes for its application and exploitation. Research and development encompasses organisational capital, which the government’s science and innovation strategy recognises as ‘an area of particular strength in the UK’, in a £25.5 billion market.10 We urge the Treasury and HMRC to examine the way the R&D tax regime recognises social-science-derived innovations in organisational processes. If ‘commercialisation of insights and inventions has been historically weak in the UK’,11 the application of social-science-derived thinking and practice in firms, in the training of managers and in industrial ‘clusters’, is vital in strengthening the link between innovation and exploitation. New ways of working, of engaging staff, of firing the imagination of producers, entrepreneurs and consumers are invaluable in a service economy such as the UK’s. They are the province of social science.

In talking about the prospects for ‘Graphene City’, Luke Georghiou, vice-president for research and innovation at the University of Manchester, urges analysis of the ‘centrifugal forces’ attracting investment to London and the South East of England.12 Without models and explanations for flows of capital and employment, technological and scientific development may be stymied.


If innovation ‘is still conceived overwhelmingly in technological rather than in organisational or social terms the notion of social innovation has gained some prominence’.13 ‘A better understanding of how the science and innovation system contributes to economic success, and increased recognition of the complexity and connectivity in the commercialisation process has led to a more holistic and multidimensional approach to policy-making’.14 Innovation is about new ideas and attitudes and about new ways of doing things in finance, retail and office processes.
The UK spends less on R&D than comparable countries but it’s not just new physical products that are important; ‘most innovation occurs within institutions … better understanding of psychology and behaviour can itself lead to valuable innovation’.15 Through initiatives such as the Gateway to Research, the National Centre for Universities and Business and the Catapult Centres, commercial developments will emerge from sharper understanding of the processes by which technologies are sold, invested in, adapted and propagated. Innovation is a social process.

See a case study on science


Capacity to innovate depends on research. The UK has an enviable reputation as the producer of first-rate research. With less than 1 per cent of the global population and only 4 per cent of the world’s researchers, the UK accounts for 10 per cent of article downloads, 12 per cent of citations and 16 per cent of the world’s most highly-cited articles (where it is second only to the United States). Such comparative advantage – to which social science makes a large contribution – must be maintained.

Knowledge underpins the UK’s growth potential; productivity depends on sustaining the ‘base’ through the Science Budget. The 2015 spending review should ring-fence the budget for science and innovation and pledge real terms growth of at least 10 per cent over the lifetime of the next parliament. This is an ambitious figure. But the social science evidence says such investment is essential to keeping the UK competitive.

This additional funding should be dedicated to interdisciplinary research and cross-research-council and cross-disciplinary programmes. Sir Paul Nurse has been commissioned to report on the research councils. We urge the review to recognise the indispensable contribution of social science to cross-disciplinary, problem-focussed research, to push further strategic coordination between the research councils and to build on the 2014 Triennial Review. The Academy of Social Sciences will be presenting evidence to the Nurse Review, citing the ESRC’s impressive record in instigating and delivering cross-research-council and cross-science working, as the Triennial Review recognised.19

We urge the review to recognise the indispensable contribution of social science to the challenges ahead and its central place in supporting and leading cross-disciplinary, problem-focussed research. Ageing is an example of an issue (and opportunity) that involves medicine, technology, history and the humanities as well as all the social sciences. Its dimensions include labour market participation and pensions, and also family structures and housing design, the institutional borders of the NHS and local government, and the subjective experience and capacities of older people and their relatives.

Social science capital spending is vital. We welcome the recognition of social science in the government’s ‘roadmap’ for capital investment and urge the next government to continue support (with both revenue and capital funding) for the internationally acclaimed birth cohort and longitudinal studies.

Social science contributes to growth by promoting institutional effectiveness. For example, studies establish strong links between pupil background and household income, and attainment at school, health and future earnings. These social facts and causal explanations can be put to use by policymakers; they also matter to teachers, governors, local authorities and, in England, chairs of academy chains. Lessening variation in pupil and school performance could, in aggregate, increase per capita output, pushing up GDP growth.

Social science provides evidence on taxation, benefits, attitudes and incentives: informed policy and political debate depend on it. Growth is not given or necessarily consensual. Choices must be made, about the balance of public and private, taxation and spending, freedom and constraint and about where and to whose benefit. Social science supplies context and helps us locate ourselves.


In the words of Jane Elliott, chief executive of the ESRC, social science helps us know ‘more about ourselves, the families, communities and societies we are part of and the institutions that we work within’. An example is The Future of the UK and Scotland, a programme of research, synthesis and dissemination to help the independence referendum and debate. ‘The programme illustrates not just the value but the diversity of the social sciences – including resources on immigration policy, higher education, welfare, defence and security, business, currency and the constitution’.20

The ESRC has been successful in stewarding public money, responding to national challenges and priorities while respecting the autonomy of researchers. It must be equipped to respond to the challenges up to 2020 described in this report, including innovation in collecting and analysing new forms of data.

The government’s strategy commends ‘agility’. The ESRC deserves praise for the speed with which it launched a programme of research and dissemination to inform thinking about the future of the UK and Europe, and its swift response in initiating projects on consumer and business data.

Within the science budget, the ESRC has a strong case in arguing how, after four years of ‘flat cash’, the international recognition won by UK social science over recent years is in jeopardy. Receiving only 6 per cent of research council funding, it supports excellent and, in several disciplines, world-class research. Resources available for social science research have been relatively squeezed. In 2013–14, the proportion of grant applications gaining funding was 25 per cent, below the average success rate of 28 per cent across the research councils.21

In the 2015 spending review, the ESRC’s share of the research council budget must better reflect its value for money, support for excellence and promotion of impact, as attested in the 2014 REF.


The ESRC is a part of, and helps maintain, a system of knowledge creation, exchange, training and education. These parts are interdependent and we encourage policymakers to understand and support these mutual dependencies.

The UK labour market has a stock of nearly two million graduates with social science training. They form a large proportion of the workforce in business, education, government and the third sector. They advise on children’s use of the internet; they measure the public acceptability of high-speed railways; they help insurers understand the changing contours of risk; they measure and refine the Barnett formula; they chart the changing economics of care within households.

An example of the social scientist as practitioner is Betsy Stanko, head of evidence and insight in the Mayor of London’s Office for Policing and Crime. She was formerly an assistant director with the Metropolitan Police Service, applying insights into crime – notably domestic violence – gained from her own and others’ academic research.

An example of policy relevance is the finding from Understanding Society, the continuous large-scale study of households, on the increasing value of care given by grandparents. It has increased in notional value by 87 per cent in a decade.22

The ecosystem includes 500,000 people with social science postgraduate degrees doing planning and analysis in firms and public bodies; they are employed in marketing, strategy and general management; they produce and exploit socio-economic data on households, consumers and travel-to-work areas. An example: the Department of Health is investing £5 million in the Cambridge Behaviour and Health Research Unit because it sees that the effectiveness of medical interventions depends on organisation, staff attitudes and patient involvement.

Commercial opinion polling exchanges methodological insights with academic investigators of voting and attitudes. Carolyn McCall, chief executive of easyJet, sponsors the Consumer Data Research Centre: its geo-demographic mapping tells the airline about its customers’ travel patterns, use of services, access to airports and carbon consumption. At WPP, Sir Martin Sorrell uses knowledge derived from social science methods: ‘Understanding consumers, including corporates and how their purchase and media habits are changing is increasingly critical’.23

Consultants – RAND, McKinsey, PricewaterhouseCoopers and others – process and apply social science knowledge and concepts. The Treasury, along with other departments of state, rely on the social science ecosystem to supply recruits and to generate knowledge about the economy, banking and public finance, which is deployed internally and by the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility. Outside government, charities and philanthropic foundations – for example, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation with its £320 million endowment and the Children’s Society with £15 million in public service contracts – realise their missions through social science skills and methods.

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Learned societies are integral to this infrastructure; they publish journals, support school teaching and contribute to the UK’s ‘soft power’. For example, the Regional Studies Association draws its members from 67 countries; a quarter of the Royal Statistical Society’s membership is based outside the UK, as are a fifth of the members of the British Educational Research Association; the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers has affiliated branches in Singapore and Hong Kong. They train, advance knowledge, oversee examinations and disseminate new ideas.


The health of these networks depends on a pipeline of social science degree holders moving to undertake master’s courses then flowing into PhD programmes. Non-UK nationals with UK PhDs represent an important source of high-quality recruitment to UK social science.

The REF 2014 results 24 demonstrated again the high quality of UK social science, its central place in delivering impact and the esteem for individual institutions with a social science mission, notably the LSE and the London Business School, which were ranked joint top on the quality of their outputs. The dual support for research should be maintained, recognising the critical role of QR funds in maintaining excellence and diversity in social science. University leaders and social scientists must ensure, within individual universities, that QR money intended to support social science reaches its target.


Dual support is a means of supporting diversity of approaches; the social sciences offer varied ways of understanding and measuring human behaviour and activity. But the common aim is getting inside the life of firms, households and individuals, and capturing trends and patterns. We call this report the ‘business of people’ in the belief that there is deep unity among the disciplines.

A decade ago David Rhind chaired an inquiry on behalf of the Academy of Social Sciences (then called the Academy of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences).25 It described social science as disciplined curiosity about the arrangements by which people live together. Discipline means intellectual standards and attested methods (such as citation protocols and sampling error) policed by the professions of psychology, economics, geography, sociology,  anthropology and the other disciplines they collaborate and share insights with, as well as by lawyers, historians and accountants. Applied curiosity widens and deepens bodies of knowledge about markets, states and institutions, and about groups, attitudes and behaviour.

Companies are employing more social scientists for a good reason. Training in the ‘business of people’ imbues a vital 21st century attribute: seeing the world as others do and allowing for the possibility that others may see what we have missed. That can imply going backwards in order to move forwards; social science has an open frontier with history and Nick Crafts can enlighten today’s and tomorrow’s debates about debt and comparative advantage by looking over the 20th century, recalculating the economic impact of the First World War and the state borrowing required to pay for it.26

Social science is distinguished from other disciplined curiosity by the tension between its analytical thrust and everyday understanding. Unlike, say, physicists, we report on and conceptualise shared lived reality; the public, political parties and politicians may find social science observations uncomfortable. But our mission is to probe the space between what ‘common sense’ perceives and what measurement and analysis say in pursuit of clarification, classification and explanation.

For example, the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme queried the common assumption that importing foodstuffs from across the globe was unsustainable: it found ‘food miles’ did not after all match perceived environmental impact.27 Ipsos MORI – the UK division of an international social-science-based company with a £650 million turnover – regularly allows us to confront the gaps between what people say, what they do and what they say they do.

Because of this, social science has a special obligation to disseminate, market and unpack its findings in the sight and hearing of its subjects. Social scientists do relatively better at outreach than colleagues from the natural sciences and humanities; a higher proportion of grant receivers in social sciences are undertaking research inspired by the users of research.28


Social science supplies what Sir Paul Collier calls ‘handy narratives’ and readily digestible theories in miniature to help the public and policymakers come to terms with the world.29 Examples of these framing and interpretive devices include globalisation, social mobility and austerity, also ‘the Nordic model’, networks, systemic risk and diversity. These notions become prisms, or what Daniel Kahneman calls heuristics – procedures that help find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions.30 Everyday terms – money, credit, the family, Britishness – need regularly to be decoded and recalibrated.

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