Part 3: The Business of Social Science


Policymakers’ and parliamentarians’ appetite for evidence from analysis and experiment has grown. The coalition minister for policy, Oliver Letwin, talks of the need for ‘people who champion effective use of social research and social science at the very highest levels in government’.40 Executives in the financial, energy, transport as well as retail sectors demand better intelligence on consumers and behaviour; internet-based companies are now appointing chief social science officers. The third sector turns to social science to help measure impact and to persuade donors of their effectiveness.

One symbol of this confidence in the future is the opening of the Social Science Research Park at Cardiff University’s new £300-million campus at Maindy Park, the sort of space, says university president Colin Riordan, ‘where people say “I want to do my business there because the understanding and innovation is there”’.41

International reviews benchmark UK social science as world class, second only to the United States, with a growing share of the world output of academic papers.42 UK geography is ranked number one worldwide; economics, psychology, politics and international studies are second only to the United States on several measures; social anthropology leads in work on kinship and complex organisations; sociology is at ‘the international forefront’ with particular strength in science and technology studies.

figure 3 BoP

Internationally, social scientists extensively cite UK research. The UK talks to the world, giving it influence greater than researcher numbers (or funding) would imply; the same applies to UK publishing in social science fields. Half of all international students in the UK are taking courses in the social sciences, which is a higher proportion than for any other disciplinary grouping. Non-UK students in the social sciences at UK universities number over 150,000; most leave after their studies but retain personal and professional connections, which are of sustained value to the UK. The next government should keep international students out of any targets to reduce net migration and reintroduce the option for non-EU graduates to stay in the UK to work for two years.


One estimate puts the gross value of UK social science at £25 billion, about half the size of the motor manufacturing industry.43 The professional research and evidence market is worth £3 billion, employing some 60,000 people, according to estimates from PricewaterhouseCoopers.44 UK companies spend nearly 1 per cent of GDP on marketing, equivalent to £16 billion. The Carnegie Trust, Barrow Cadbury, Esmée Fairbairn and other endowments dedicate many millions to social science studies.

Whitehall and the devolved administrations commission research, the latter worth around £4 million a year, paying for in-house researchers and surveys. Local authorities across the UK use social research as they plan housing and provision of school places.

A full accounting would assess ‘goodwill’ and intellectual property contained in the social science knowledge and methods being put to use across the economy. This calculus of value would also put a price on ideas and practical innovation in such areas as supply chain innovation, reshaping attitudes to the employability of older people, the scale of viable farming, supermarket price-cut deals, surviving cancer, preventing suicides on railways and decision making by people with dementia.

Some 630,000 students are enrolled on undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the social sciences in UK universities, compared with some 800,000 in STEM subjects. About 35,500 academic staff teach and research in social science against some 75,000 in STEM. The respective ratios of staff to students in universities are 1:19 and 1:11. University social science receives £851 million in research grants and contracts (of which £594 million comes from funding and research councils) while STEM subjects receive £4,777 million, £3,083 million from the councils.

Social science academics reach out to business, the public and government to a slightly greater extent than academics in STEM subjects, who have greater purchase on the media and the professions.

University STEM departments are more strongly linked to big companies and to small and medium enterprises, but business and management has strong links to international companies, as does law. Social science academics are, correspondingly, more strongly connected to government, the NHS, international organisations and agencies than STEM colleagues.

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Social science students take their degrees into all areas of employment, but predominantly into management, education, research and the professions. Employers say they want well-rounded graduates with strong analytical skills. Many courses might supply these. But recruiters add that they want people with imagination and social skills. Social science degrees supply these too.

When traced three and a half years after graduating, one in eight social science students are in health and social work and one in 14 in the wider public sector. One in 12 are in management positions, one in five in professional/scientific/technical jobs and one in 14 in finance and insurance.

Figure 5 BoP

Social science graduates form about 15 per cent of the total graduate population of 10.5 million. Those with social science postgraduate qualifications are most evident among business and public service professionals, in management and administration, in health and social welfare, sales and customer service. Some 600,000 social science graduates are in public administration, education and health, and half a million or so in banking and finance.

In schools, teachers of geography, social studies, economics and some general studies form about 12 per cent of the professional workforce (that is 27,000 English state secondary school teachers).


Social scientists contribute directly as individuals. Government departments and agencies turn to experts both for advice and to conduct specific inquiries; some (the Bank of England for example) recruit many for full- and part-time roles.

Here are some examples of recent public service social scientists. It’s not so much the distinction of these individuals as the fact that they belong to the ecosystem; the talent pool that produces them would dry up without continuing support from training and research council and other grants.

Sir John Hills examined fuel poverty for DECC. His colleague from the LSE, Sir Julian Le Grand, led a review of children’s services in Birmingham and heads the taskforce on mutuals. Carol Tannahill is seconded from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health as chief social policy adviser to the Scottish Government. In Wales, Dame Teresa Rees, formerly commissioner for the Equal Opportunities Commission, has advised BT, and was a member of the BBC audience council among several appointments. Dame Kate Barker carried out a major review of housing supply under the previous government; recently she chaired the King’s Fund commission on the future of health and social care. Tanya Byron, specialist in child and adolescent psychology, conducted the review entitled Safer Children in a Digital World. David Halpern entered public service and helped found what is now the Behavioural Insights Unit.

Huw Williams, director of the Centre for Clinical Neuropsychology Research, carried out studies on behalf of the Department of Health and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. Rory O’Connor, professor of health psychology at the University of Glasgow, advises the Scottish government on suicide prevention. Matthew Oakley, former head of economics and social policy at Policy Exchange, now at Which?, conducted an independent review of Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions for the DWP.

John Kay, former head of the Saïd Business School at Oxford, was commissioned by BIS to examine investment in UK equity markets and its impact on the long-term performance of UK quoted companies. Sir Andrew Dilnot, now warden of Nuffield College, Oxford, is Chair of the UK Statistics Authority and reported on the costs of social care. The Natural Capital Committee is chaired by Dieter Helm, the University of Oxford economist.

Competition appeals use the skills and experience of the likes of Colin Mayer of the Saïd Business School and John Beath, secretary general of the Royal Economic Society. Social scientists are deployed on the pay review bodies and in the administration of town and country planning. Sir David Metcalf chairs the Home Office Migration Advisory Committee.

On behalf of the DfE, Eileen Munro led a review of child protection. Sir Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College, London, was official historian of the Falklands Campaign and serves on the Chilcot inquiry into Britain and the 2003 Iraq War.

The Scottish government convenes a council of economic advisers, which includes Sir James Mirrlees, a Nobel economics prize-winner. The Scottish Science Advisory Council helps the Scottish government’s chief scientific adviser, and its members include Sir Ian Diamond, former chief executive of the ESRC. Huw Beynon is a member of the Science Advisory Council for Wales, feeding into the Welsh government through the chief scientific adviser.

We urge more senior social scientists in academic positions and practice to put themselves forward for appointments in government service. The Royal Society has in recent years devised programmes to mentor and support potential recruits to advisory roles. The Academy of Social Sciences is keen to work to develop similar initiatives for social scientists.


At Westminster and in the devolved administrations, ministers, elected members and officials are now much more aware of how policy and cost effectiveness can be improved through evidence, scrutiny and evaluation. But relevant knowledge is haphazardly deployed: the use of evidence grounded in research and analysis is intermittent, and what is recognised as ‘science’ often misses insights from social-science-based analysis.

The chief scientist at Defra (a veterinarian) has noted that over badger culling the big gaps in knowledge and understanding were not about disease transmission or herd behaviour but about public attitudes, land use, property and farming practice. The roll out of ‘digital by default’ government services depends on much more than technology: it requires better understanding of attitudes and behaviours.

The Prime Minister, Cabinet Secretary and GCSA need a ‘chief social scientist’ to supply wide social science perspectives on institutions, behaviour and data.

This role should be based within the Government Office for Science (working with the GCSA) or added to the responsibilities of one of the departmental chief scientific advisers.

In addition, we urge more Whitehall departments to appoint candidates from social science backgrounds as their chief scientific advisers, as in the DfE and the Treasury.

Departmental advisory committees should also (as in Defra and DECC) routinely include social scientists, both academics and practitioners. Arm’s-length bodies, quangos and local authorities – especially in large cities – should review their use and commissioning of social science knowledge and evidence.

Ministers and representatives and civil servants could be better equipped to commission evidence. It is still rare to find maps of knowledge needs (such as the DfE’s) or strategies for evidence (such as Defra’s). Research councils connect only ad hoc with departments. There is a long way to go either before existing policies are routinely evaluated or plans checked against evidence, let alone made subject to experiment, piloting or trial.45 Social science analysis and financial audit, though their subject matter and questions are often similar, tend not to be joined up.

Yet good evidence for policymakers abounds, along with the expertise to apply it. For example, research for the Sutton Trust calibrates the effect of teacher quality. In partnership with the Treasury and HMRC, the IFS is helping design tax operations and policy. The Scottish Government’s Centre of Expertise on Climate Change collaborates with social scientists, for example from the University of Strathclyde. The MoD is cooperating with the ESRC in bringing social scientists from universities and the thinktanks together with officials and services staff to scope challenges for the next Strategic Defence Review.

Social scientists are involved both as advisers and witnesses in parliamentary inquiries and their value is now being recognised at Westminster and in the devolved parliaments and assemblies. Thanks to ESRC support, the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology now includes social science advisers, but more needs to be done to equip representatives for scrutiny and oversight and feed into value for money studies by the National Audit Office and parallel bodies. Social scientific advice to the Westminster parliament and the legislative bodies in the devolved administrations should be further strengthened, as part of broader modernisation of scrutiny and oversight.

Successive reports – most recently from the ESRC’s ‘knowledge navigators’ – say the effectiveness of local authorities could be improved if they had a closer relationship with producers of knowledge, data and analysis, either individually or through their central associations.

See a case study on What Works

But the What Works centres only ‘work’ if they are rigorous and intellectually independent. The precondition for their success is the health of the UK social science ecosystem – which depends, we say, on clearer recognition of research strength in official strategy and sustained public investment.