Campaign will stop social science being undervalued, roadshow hears

21 February 2013

Professor Michael Harloe

Social scientists have felt undervalued and unappreciated, but the campaign organised on their behalf was changing that, a roadshow at London Metropolitan University on Wednesday 20 February heard.  Photos and videos of the event.

The Campaign for Social Science’s Acting Chair, Professor Michael Harloe, told an audience of more 30 people that the Campaign had been set up “to raise the profile of social sciences among the public, the media and parliament”.

Professor Harloe said: “We are now in a situation where science, technology, engineering and maths – the STEM subjects – were about 15 to 20 years ago. Then they felt undervalued and underappreciated and they recognised that there was a lack of public understanding of what the STEM disciplines contributed to society and its development.

“In a response to this a group of scientists formed the body originally called Save British Science, now renamed the Campaign for Science and Engineering. It’s been a very effective lobbyist and publicists for STEM.

“Through a sustained effort to promote public understanding, not just relying on private lobbying, though doing that as well, the STEM scientists and learned societies which represent them have fostered not only higher public understanding of science but have raised the esteem in which these disciplines are viewed notably in regard to their contribution to the knowledge economy.

“The new knowledge economy does not only depend on STEM subjects – it also requires qualities of innovation, creativity and enterprise across all disciplines and we need to produce generations of social science researchers and graduates who can contribute to the new knowledge economy in terms of management, design, social impact, social changes, understanding the social underpinnings of new technology, new markets and so on.

“Of course this is just one example of the case to be made for the social sciences, albeit the one that has most resonance with government in these times – i.e. the link between research and the economy.

“One aspect of the relatively low profile of social science in parliament is its low profile in government. Central government is a major commissioner and user of social research but nowhere does social science and government come together functionally in any holistic way.

“In particular, there is a lack of social science presence at the most senior levels in government. The comparison with the position of natural sciences and engineering is instructive – there are about 20 chief departmental science advisors, with the particular brief of advising departments and ministers on policy developments, and analysis of the scientific evidence base. Most of these individuals have a background in the physical life and medial sciences, and on top of that there is the government chief social scientist who heads the Government Office for Science and advises the Prime Minister directly.”

Professor Harloe said there was no such equivalent for the social sciences, but that the Campaign had worked hard to lobby for this and hoped for a change in the future.

“The Campaign is about ensuring the public, media and decision-makers increasingly come to recognise the relevance and excellence of UK social science,” he said.

Professor Harloe said that the Campaign had recently appointed a part-time press office and a part-time policy officer. It was also surveying social science departments in UK universities to monitor the numbers of students and staff and how these are changing.

It had also campaigned against the “overhasty and potentially damaging” way in which the government has adopted the recommendation of the Finch report on open access publication.

“This pressure has resulted in partial modifications of the plans but there is still a long way to before the particular concerns of the social sciences and the humanities are fully recognised.”

The Campaign, now supported by 35 universities, all the main social science publishers and over 20 learned societies, would continue to try to influence policy-making by giving evidence to select committee and consultations, he said.

Other speakers at the event were Ceridwen Roberts AcSS, a Board member, and Professor Malcolm Gillies, Vice-Chancellor of London Metropolitan University.