Is it too late to build a better world?

1 August 2017

Professor Sir Keith Burnett FRS explains why the UK should invest in the social sciences.

The greatest challenge we face is to use our intellects to guide our actions in making the world a better place for us and our fellow human beings.

This is no easy task and its history is littered with false dawns and doctrines. You would have to be blind to the lessons of the past to fail to appreciate the awful impact that delusional ideas have had on mankind. Some of the worst are those meant to save us.

There are some who take this as a warning against intervention at all, who say it can never be done and shouldn’t even be attempted. That the forces of nature blow winds in society that we can never tame. That we are bound to suffer like a small ship in a stormy sea.

They might be right, but it would be the utmost dereliction of academia to give up on this quest. And in any case, I don’t believe it is true. These forces may be there, but there is much we can do, a lot of it deeply practical to make the journey more comfortable and so we even end up in the right port.

Of course, there are those who believe we academics simply don’t care. That scholarship is happiest at a distance from messy, contradictory humanity and prefers in its detached world of conferences and publications. That we are content to analyse rather than heal.

Well I can tell you that my social sciences colleagues at Sheffield are not content in an ivory tower and they never have been. They feel the challenges of our world as keenly as any. And they know if we ever needed understanding, and a vision of what society could be, we need it now.

I am confident they are not alone and, as a scientist all my life, it has become apparent to me that, to translate insights into change, we must frequently overcome barriers of perception and culture, of politics and prejudice. Our great challenges are not only technical but matters of education and economics. Our barriers those of opportunity, power and purpose.

If we want solutions to reach those who desperately need them, we must understand how to take the word and make it flesh. Ideas alone are not enough, they come to life through people. They need money, armies of changed opinion.

If we don’t do this work, the risk is truly terrible – that the armies and the power, the public opinion and votes, will be led by ignorance and profit. As the ancient Greeks knew, a demos could only function when citizens could grasp the consequences of their choices.

Perhaps we had forgotten; thought ‘it can’t happen here’? If so, this year has been a stark reminder of why we dare not be complacent. For who would deny the great political lessons we are almost choking on as we see Brexit evolve from fringe populist movement to a force that is shaking us to pieces? Who will have failed to understand, in the frustrations of Trump, the value of a constitution designed to protect citizens against the ravages of a tyrant?

Why do the social sciences matter? Just look around us. Who would deny the need for new ways to organise our industry and our economy as real incomes fade? Who would deny that we need a society which is able to sensibly regulate against the depredations of the unscrupulous landlord?

Who would deny the need to understand how to better educate and train our youth?

We are engaged in a battle for society, and the fronts are many and difficult. Can we hope to build a society that will look after the stranger in its midst? Is social justice a chimera?

Is there anything to be done?

To this we answer, yes. But we must do more than study, we must find the gears which will ensure what we discover can be absorbed by a society than needs to act with understanding.

That is why we are taking a bold step and building a new translational research centre for Social Science at The University of Sheffield. Our major investment in interdisciplinary facilities and a ‘skunk works’ for the social sciences will pioneer better ways of working together. We are creating a flagship facility which does not erect walls between subjects and disciplines, between teaching and research, between experts and those who are on the front line of making a better world.

Even as universities face fundamental challenges to purpose, we want to draw together to respond to the concerns of society as a whole. To make a place where the talents that have often been broken into a splintered academic world can be brought together with practitioners and those seeking help, where knowledge will be less likely to be lost in translation.

And we do know this is an approach which works. In fact, our university was founded on exactly these principles – somewhere where education and scholarship would be at the service of the people.

We have learned at Sheffield that the greatest benefit to our communities comes when practitioner and theorist work together as one. Just as we unite doctors with patients and engineers with manufacturers to transform health and productivity, pioneering new approaches as we do, we want to create for the social sciences an environment where barriers between scholarship and experience are removed.

Don’t think for a moment that this means we should eschew deep thinking. It is just that we know in the right circumstances the deepest dives into the streams of thought coming up for air in the real world can be the inspiration.

Law, Legislation and Liberty is the title of Friedrich Hayek’s book. In it he describes how to organise the whole of society, the context for individual happiness and opportunity. And who would not want these greatest of prizes? Even a thinker who worried about intervention would admit that some challenges are too important to leave to chance. It could be a theme of our new Centre for Advanced Social Science.

A better world will not self-assemble. We can and must ensure that action is based on knowledge. Investigating ways of working which bring together research and application is more than good for scholarship, it can transform policy and practice for individuals and communities. The social sciences are how this happens. They can and do change lives.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett is President and Vice-Chancellor of The University of Sheffield and Chair-elect of the Nuffield Foundation which funds research, analysis, and student programmes that advance educational opportunity and social well-being across the United Kingdom.

Background information about the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield and the new social science facility

The Faculty of Social Sciences is the University’s largest faculty, with more than 9,000 students – making up 34 percent of the University’s total student population. The Faculty comprises 13 departments, research institutes, and the White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership. The Faculty is unique among its peers in the Russell Group in having both classical social sciences disciplines such as Politics and Economics, but also practitioner-based disciplines such as Architecture and the Information School.

The new facility will build on the world class, interdisciplinary, social science research at the University of Sheffield by bringing together a wide range of disciplines under the same roof for the first time. The new facility will also include a research hub, bringing together cross-cutting research centres in an innovative working environment to lead the way in addressing key societal and global challenges.

This will build on recent research successes in the Faculty of Social Sciences including winning several million pounds of funding for a new Housing Evidence Centre funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and a project for Sustainable Care, also funded by the ESRC. The hub will also allow Sheffield to grow its partnerships at home and abroad with the likes of the Department of Work and Pensions and leading international universities.

The state-of-the-art home for the University’s Faculty of Social Sciences will improve learning for students through its new collaborative teaching and social spaces, codesigned by students. Facilities include cutting edge teaching, social spaces and a debating chamber.

It is estimated that the project will create just under 220 jobs per year during the construction period with close to 100 more supported in the Sheffield City region each year by indirect and induced effects. In total, the new building, its students and their visitors are expected to create an economic footprint for the Sheffield City Region worth some £84.9 million in gross value added during its first year of operation in 2020.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.