Part 2: Thinking Ahead


The audience for this report includes MPs, ministers, shadow ministers and their advisers; their stock in trade depends on social science. Politics is suffused with techniques and evidence derived from the study of government, parties and public participation. The apparatus of politics depends on the social science ecosystem – including the continuing flow of investment in research and training.

Political self-understanding matters; it is a precondition of democracy. The Commons’ Political and Constitutional Reform Committee turns to Ron Johnston of the University of Bristol for his expertise on parliamentary boundaries. John Curtice is a fixture in television and radio election coverage and sits in a rich tradition leading back among others to Sir Roger Jowell, founder of NatCen social research, and Sir David Butler. To understand the rise of the UK Independence Party, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s Revolt on the Right draws on a pool of empirical studies of parties and politics in the UK and internationally.34

Knowledge and data can help avoid ‘blunders’.35 Social science methods and disciplines underpin scrutiny and evaluation of policies. The pursuit of effectiveness and better value for money in government rests on cost–benefit analysis and a battery of tools and techniques worked up within social science and across its boundaries with accountancy, epidemiology and operational research and statistics.

Leadership (the subject of intense inquiry by social scientists) is also on display in firms, charities, public bodies, the Bank of England and advertising agencies. These and other organisations need to know what is happening ‘out there’ in order to locate themselves strategically within markets, regulatory environments, policy streams and social trends. Social scientific analysis precedes and accompanies strategy. It helps decide when and where to sell; the shape and size of audiences; who might give when charitable donations are solicited and how to regulate behaviour without perverse consequences.

A strategy for knowledge from 2015 onwards

Over the next few pages we present examples of social science confronting the challenges the UK will face over the next few years. These illustrate an impressive commitment that merits greater prominence in the government’s plan for growth and innovation. We need more strategic thinking about ways in which different forms of knowledge and expertise can be combined. In its Evidence Strategy the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said ‘it will be vital to coordinate all our evidence activities by working in a more joined-up way. That means working better within government and with partners across a range of organisations’.36 We echo this with a call for more coordination between the ESRC,other research councils, business, philanthropic research funders and international bodies, but also government itself as the prime commissioner of data and analysis.

Here are abbreviated examples of social science addressing the future, around the themes of growth, behaviour, security and social dynamics.

Going for growth

The backdrop to this report is almost a decade of crisis, recession and recovery. In response, research seeks to capture the finance sector’s contribution to productivity and growth, for example Donald MacKenzie’s ‘sociology of algorithms’; also to e-tailing, ‘big box’ warehouses and the fate of the high street.

The Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies is mapping new travel-to-work areas, reflecting more employees working non-standard hours. Through research on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and their access to R&D and credit we are finding out more about this vital sector and the ESRC is proposing a longitudinal £10 million study, which would uncover reasons for SMEs’ birth, death and survival over time. Among a multitude of studies of the real lives of firms, Bridget Hutter has shown how they negotiate compliance with regulation and Tommaso Valletti how regulating one price (the termination charge for a mobile connection) leads phone companies to raise others.

Performance and capacity

Social scientists specify the conditions for effective governance in firms, charities and government agencies. The students they train form the backbone of the human resources and occupational psychology functions across organisations. They supply practical advice: the University of Bath Centre for Research in Strategic Purchasing and Supply helped the NHS save £250 million on the purchase price of hearing aids.

Reporting on airport capacity in the South East of England, Sir Howard Davies, former director of the LSE, relies on studies on airport connectivity as the driver of economic growth, on low carbon transport alternatives and on public attitudes to noise and pollution. Social researchers are employed by train operating companies, engineering partnerships and sustainable transport lobby groups. On the tracks, psychologists collaborated with Bombardier in designing a new train protection and warning system for drivers’ cabs. On the roads, or rather the pavements, in a road safety programme being cited across the world, James Thomson and colleagues help children acquire ‘kerbcraft’.

See a case study on early years

Behaving better

Economic and social characteristics are now being linked with the wealth of biological and medical data in UK Biobank. We are beginning to explore the relationship between the genome and income, background and upbringing, with potentially huge consequences for policy and public spending. Neuroscience joins with social science in understanding brain function and behaviour in classrooms, teaching effectiveness and school–home interaction.

The UK’s 2013–18 cross-government antimicrobial resistance strategy wants to apply genomic technology to improve surveillance of disease outbreaks, along with social science analysis of clinician, media, patient and government attitudes and practice, ‘aimed at raising awareness and encouraging behaviour change’.37 Important social science research is carried on within government. The recent finding by the DfE that overall 14 per cent of young people receive additional private tuition (24 per cent in London) is deeply relevant to policy and school evaluation.38

Firms and government agencies try to change behaviour through financial incentives, advertising, coercion and ‘nudging’. Recent examples include re-wording letters from HMRC and enrolment in pension schemes. Research by Jane Millar and colleagues influenced the design of tax credits, which have increased labour market participation and, as evaluated by the IFS, helped equalise incomes.

On ageing, social science is sceptical about decline in family integration or deterioration in the performance of older people as paid workers. Researchers are monitoring the safeguarding of older people and, on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), modelling the effects of raising the state retirement age. The ESRC and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) are together investing £8.3 million in how the built environment encourages physical activity and wellbeing in both care homes and the wider urban environment. Healthy life expectancy may fall back because of obesity: Susan Michie and colleagues at the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change are among those contributing to understanding physical activity and healthfulness.

Securing society

Social scientists are working on gangs, organised and ‘honour’ crime, child abuse and trafficking. Social scientists study untoward events such as flooding and investigate victims and emergency response. The social science advisory panel convened by Defra and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) assesses threats to biosecurity from pests and plant disease, and models how the media, business and public might respond in the event of an outbreak. Social scientists estimate what a healthier diet would mean for land use, leading to fewer cattle being raised, and how uplands communities might be affected as the ovine economy changes.

The UK in the world

Social science underpins diplomacy and defence, as conventional definitions of domestic and foreign give way to a more integrated understanding of the UK in the world. Anthropologists and others are on the front line in Afghanistan and Iraq; they help analyse internet traffic, placing terrorism in a wider context of minority communities, discrimination, geographical isolation and economic opportunity. Social research helps understand radicalisation, underpinning the Prevent strategy.

The Royal United Services Institute works with the MoD and companies to link defence planning assumptions and the development of a sustainable structure for UK armed forces with projections of the UK’s place in the world. And nowadays social science also studies the converse: the place of the world in the UK. The Centre on Migration, Policy and Society examines the flow of people across boundaries, including nation state boundaries; with the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, it assesses patterns of settlement and the impact of migrants on labour markets.

Social scientists are extensively used by the Department for International Development to design and implement aid programmes, and by the World Bank and other international bodies (reflected in Sylvia Walby’s UNESCO Chair in Gender Research). Projects range from macro-prudential regulation in middle-income countries to pensions in Tamil Nadu. Social scientists report on temporary workers in the South Pacific islands, on remittance flows between the UK and Somalia, agricultural subsidies in Malawi, post-conflict reconciliation in central Africa and war-displaced communities in Sudan. Trade and partnerships with China depend on understanding its society and markets. Stephen Tsang, head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, uses the concept of ‘consultative Leninism’ to understand politics in the People’s Republic. Lancaster University’s China Catalyst Programme focuses on Guangdong, aiming to help UK companies to trade there. Fulong Wu of UCL works with city authorities in China on housing for rural migrants.

The UK’s capacity for interdisciplinary research is a crucial asset in any collaborative venture, and the Newton Fund should prioritise projects which bring together UK natural scientists, social scientists and engineers to work with their counterparts in emerging economies, such as China, India and Brazil, on shared social and environmental challenges. We encourage wider appreciation of social scientists’ success in international research competition.

Economic and social dynamics

Through longitudinal studies, social scientists have established the likelihood of young people from poorer backgrounds rising to prestigious positions. The quality and rigour of analysis of social mobility in the UK is admired internationally. John Goldthorpe and colleagues see little evidence that social mobility is declining but do detect increasing risk of downward mobility. The chances of a child with a higher-professional or managerial father ending up in a similar position rather than in a manual position are up to 20 times greater than the same chances for a child whose father is a manual worker.

Social science lays out conditions for happiness and wellbeing; these include a sense of belonging, trust, social cohesion and access to justice. Sue Heath and colleagues at the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives show how kinship and relatedness are changing wellbeing inside families. In their advocacy of cognitive therapies for people suffering from depression and anxiety, Lord Richard Layard and David Clark have pushed public policy in a new direction and made clinical practice more (cost) effective. The life’s work of Sir Cary Cooper, Chair of the Academy of Social Sciences, has been connecting organisational success to the psychological health and wellbeing of staff.


Social scientists – for example at the Oxford Internet Institute – are joining with mathematicians and engineers to mine the data generated as people spend more time in digital contexts. New neighbourhood-level statistics of the kind being put together by Dave Martin are of use to school chains and voluntary organisations. Data collected by the DWP and HMRC is now being exploited. With the launch of the ESRC’s Big Data Network, opportunities beckon better to understand patterns in retail trading.

Data sets are a form of capital investment; the longitudinal studies and the census are national assets, without which it would be impossible to measure social change, mobility or the significance of migration. The innovative Life Study aims to chart the life course of 80,000 babies born in 2014–15. These data sets appreciate in value as time elapses. Follow up in the early years of children from the 2014–15 Life Study would be immensely valuable; many Life Study children will live to 100 years or more, presenting unparalleled opportunity for study and policy. But during the next six years, the Life Study and other cohorts will need further investment of £60 million.

Whitehall departments and the UK Statistics Authority/ONS are also major investors in data infrastructure. Sustaining their R&D budgets is vital and could be better coordinated. The Chair of the UK Data Forum, Tim Holt, is right to regret the ‘fractured nature of decision making’ around the commissioning and exploitation of the UK’s outstanding data sets.39

We urge the next UK government to pick up the policies prepared by the Cabinet Office to create a statutory presumption in favour of sharing de-identified public data for research purposes.

A condition of the successful exploitation of these data riches is the expansion of quantitative and methodological capacity among social scientists. Better training for social science undergraduates is advancing with the £15.5 million Quantitative Methods Programme, supported by the Nuffield Foundation, the ESRC and the university funding councils. We are committed to ensuring that a social science degree becomes, even more than today, a passport to data understanding and exploitation. Building on Q-Step, social science education must increasingly equip the next generation of researchers with quantitative techniques, the capacity to acquire and analyse new forms of data, and the disposition to work collaboratively with other scientists.