Summary and Recommendations

The challenges facing the UK – its prosperity and functioning as a place for trade, creativity, exchange, equity, and opportunity – will be met only if we deploy social science knowledge, skills and methods of inquiry ever more intensively. To thrive we must innovate. In innovation, we must marry progress in technology and the physical and life sciences with insights from studying behaviour, place, economy and society. To exploit the vastness of Big Data emerging from social media, the biosphere, health and public administration we need collaboration across the disciplines.

Advancing and applying science depends on profits, policies, markets, organisations and attitudes. These are social science themes. In Our plan for growth (the science and innovation strategy published in December 2014), the government underlined the necessity of deploying ‘all the sciences’. Within this mix, social science supplies tools, concepts and models to help us think about and run the state and markets.

We join with colleagues from other disciplines in calling for more public investment in research. The advance of knowledge is a precondition for prosperity (and the tax revenues it supplies).

UK research enjoys high international standing, to which social science makes an impressive contribution. UK-based social scientists deliver disproportionately to their numbers and funding, as attested by global citation indices and benchmarking reviews. The results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) show the enduring quality of the UK’s worldleading individuals and departments in the social sciences and such top-ranking institutions as the LSE.

As in 2015 it celebrates its 50th anniversary, the ESRC must be financially equipped to contribute to cross-disciplinary programmes while supporting training and at least maintaining – if not improving – the proportion of alpha-rated research proposals it can fund. Social science capital investment projects (for example longitudinal and consumer data) deserve greater prominence in the government’s ‘roadmap’ for future investment and must be sustained.

Recommendations:

1. Investment

1.1 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.

1.2 This additional funding should be dedicated to interdisciplinary research and cross-council programmes.

1.3 Further iterations of the government’s strategy for science and innovation must recognise the contribution of social science more explicitly, particularly innovations in organisational processes and productivity derived from social science and its role in understanding the nature of innovation itself.

1.4 We urge the Treasury and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to examine how the Research and Development (R&D) tax regime might better recognise and support social-science-derived innovations in organisational process.

1.5 We welcome the recognition of social science in the capital investment roadmap and urge the next government to continue support, both revenue and capital, for the internationally acclaimed birth cohort and longitudinal studies.

2. Research priorities

2.1 We urge the Nurse Review of the research councils 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’s endorsement of the ESRC’s leadership in and support for collaborative work.

2.2 The ESRC share of the research council budget must better reflect its value for money, support for excellence and promotion of impact, as attested by the 2014 REF results.

2.3 The ESRC must be equipped to support work on the challenges up to 2020 described in this report, including innovation in collecting and analysing Big Data and new forms of data.

2.4 The UK’s capacity for interdisciplinary research is a great asset in international collaboration and the new £375 million Newton Fund should give priority to projects that bring together natural and social scientists and engineers to work with counterparts in the emerging economies on shared social and environmental challenges.

3. Other funding points

3.1. The dual support system for scientific research and scholarship should be maintained, recognising the critical role of Quality-Related (QR) funds in maintaining excellence and diversity in social science.

3.2. University leaders and social scientists must ensure, within individual universities, that QR funds intended to support social science reach their target.
3.3 We recommend that in preparation for the next research excellence exercise, the funding councils allow researchers to submit outputs to more than one assessment panel, in order to support interdisciplinary ways of working.

3.4 Beyond the ringfenced science budget, Whitehall departments and the devolved administrations should sustain investment in social science research and data. Resources available to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the devolved statistical agencies should reflect their prime importance in providing quality-assured socio-economic data and analysis.

4. Students

4.1 Loans for taught master’s degrees must ensure fair access across the social sciences, and social science expertise should be applied in evaluating their effects on social mobility, labour markets and meeting strategic needs.

4.2 The next government should keep international students out of any targets to reduce net migration and reintroduce an option for non-EU graduates to stay in the UK to work for up to two years.

4.3 Building on such initiatives as the Q-Step Centres, 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 collaborate with other scientists.

5. Strategy

5.1 The Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) should produce a new strategic framework for the social sciences, encompassing research, data and the supply of trained people to meet the needs of individual disciplines, business and government.

5.2 The UK Strategic Forum for the Social Sciences should be reconstituted to support the GCSA in preparing this framework, by gathering evidence and monitoring the pipeline of social scientists moving into business, government, the universities and research.

5.3 Areas of strategic priority for the next five years include data skills, macroeconomics and equipping more social scientists for collaborative working across the disciplines.

6. Data

6.1 Strategy must embrace collection and analysis of data by the ONS and the devolved statistical agencies, the decennial census, the UK Data Service and other ESRC resources, and the commissioning of surveys by Whitehall departments and the devolved administrations in the context of policies on open and shared data.

6.2 We urge the next UK government to carry forward the Cabinet Office’s work on creating a statutory presumption in favour of sharing de-identified public (administrative) data for research purposes.

7. Government and social science

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

7.2 We urge more Whitehall departments to appoint candidates from social science backgrounds as their chief scientific advisers and correspondingly encourage more social science researchers and practitioners to put themselves forward for appointment.

7.3 Departmental science advisory committees should be enriched by the appointment of more social scientists.

7.4 Arm’s-length bodies and local authorities, especially in big cities, should review their use and commissioning of social science knowledge and evidence.

7.5 Social scientific advice to the Westminster parliament and the legislative bodies in the devolved administrations should be strengthened, as part of broader modernisation of scrutiny and the supply of evidence.