Labour government would “restore the dignity of social science,” says Byrne

21 January 2014

Liam Byrne and Cary Cooper

A Labour government would “restore the dignity of social science within government,” the Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, Liam Byrne MP, said.

Speaking at a Campaign for Social Science meeting, Mr Byrne said he was “pretty attracted” to reinstating the post of Chief Social Scientist within government, abolished in 2010, as part of this. “We need to hire more social scientists [for government],” he said.

He said that social scientists could produce the research that told government how to get the best return on investment for its spending. They were also vital for ensuring that civil servants had the skills needed for their work – “making sure that policymakers are well-versed in techniques of research is incredibly important.”

Mr Byrne said the current generation of public servants was “hard pressed”, and there had been a “huge exodus of talent from central government, so what you are doing is more important now than it has ever been.”

The need for social scientists applied to local as well as central government. The “1,000 most influential public servants in local government” needed to know who to ring for the best social science research to guide them when they were writing cabinet papers for politicians, he said.

Mr Byrne said that scientists and social scientists had to do more to make their case to the political parties in the run up to the General Election in 2015, in particular to makes clear that the ‘flat cash’ policy of not adjusting the science budget for inflation was hitting research.

“It is going to be really important that learned societies and others are talking about the damage that flat-cash would do if it is sustained for another five years. Most people in the research community say it is bone they are having to cut, not fat any more.” Scientists needed to “make the lifting of flat-cash the test of whether a party is serious about science and innovation-based growth.”

This was particularly important because the NHS and schools budget were guaranteed to be maintained and so large cuts would have to fall within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which funded universities. Its budget could see a £2 billion cut over the three years after the election.

Mr Byrne, Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the last government, said that Labour would make “repairing the economy” central to its election strategy, in particular increasing the number of well-paid, skilled, secure jobs, which had been significantly cut by the economic downturn.

It would make sure that the education system produced workers capable of taking on these new jobs. As part of its policy on this, Labour wanted international companies with large R&D budgets to invest in Britain; to use universities to develop regional economies; and to make “a complete transformation” in the numbers of apprenticeships in Britain, and make it easier to move from further education to higher education.

As part of this “we are going to have to think very hard about what the future of student finance system will look like because we have a 40 per cent decline in the part-time places and real problems for post-graduates students – we don’t have a student finance system that’s fit for the 21st century.”

He said that Labour was “the party of full employment and we are very clear that the way back to full employment is through science and innovation policy.”

Mr Byrne was speaking at a special meeting of the Campaign for Social Science’s Board. The restoration of the post of Chief Government Social Scientist is one of the main aims of the Campaign.

After the meeting, Professor James Wilsdon, Chair of the Campaign, said: “We’re very grateful to Liam Byrne for meeting with us, and for the depth and seriousness of thought which he’s bringing to the task of developing Labour’s agenda for universities, research, skills and innovation, ahead of the next Election.

“Liam clearly recognises the contribution of the social sciences to the economy, society and public policy. It’s now down to us, as the social science community, to provide him with the evidence and arguments he needs, to make that case more widely.”