Launch of the Campaign for Social Science 20th January 2011

January 21, 2011

Polly Toynbee and David Willetts at the Campaign Launch

“As a long time consumer of the output of the British social science community, I value social science and support the event and the Campaign,” said the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science, speaking to a packed room at the launch of the Campaign for Social Science at the House of Lords on 20th January 2011. View the videos and photos from the launch.

Stressing the centrality of social science work to the wellbeing of society, Professor Cary Cooper CBE AcSS, Chair of the Academy of Social Sciences noted that, “Social science is us: it is being green or greedy, being global or local; it is about circuses, suicide bombers, illicit drugs, punk, funk, farming or fashion.” He added that “some 80% of newspaper content is social science based … but we need to bring its successes into the light of day.” Over 150 people attended the launch, including many MPs and Peers from across the political spectrum, senior civil servants and key members of the social science community.

Professor Sir Howard Newby AcSS, President of the Academy, drew attention to the fact that international benchmarking showed UK social science research as second only the US on the world stage adding that the new knowledge economy did not rely only upon STEM disciplines. Public understanding of the value and quality of social science must be taken forward.

Coherent policy making requires social science research and social scientists are required to check whether policies are effective, was the message from Lord Anthony Giddens AcSS, as he congratulated the Academy for launching the Campaign. “It is the accumulated intellectual capital of social science, deriving from the universities, that provides the background to the ideas and data that shape our society. The driving force behind the ideas that give birth to and shape policies is social science, and it is social scientists that will provide the rethink of economic social theory in the wake of the recession.” He hoped that the Campaign would be able to provide systematic data on the impact of social science in the world, and urged it go wider than just the UK, networking with others, including the arts and humanities, in a global space.

A properly scientific approach throws up difficult issues, but helps us deal better with our resources, both in terms of what we do right and what we get wrong, was the message from Trevor Phillips OBE, Chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. He spoke as a natural scientist who had come to appreciate early on the importance of social science research in understanding society. As one charged with making the world a better place, he saw the complexities and difficulties of the task made murkier by poor journalism and entrenched prejudices. “We need guidance from good evidence rigorously gathered and carefully analysed: this is how you make a difference rather than just make a noise”. He hoped that the Campaign for Social Science would open up new possibilities for social science to play a role as well as do what it does better.

Professor David Rhind AcSS, Chair of the Nuffield Foundation and of the UK Statistics Authority noted the need for spokesmanship at the highest level. He said it was crucial that good quality evidence underpinned actions, expressing concern for the apparent antipathy towards proper data collection in some quarters and the downgrading of staff with oversight of social research in government at a time of huge social change. Working jointly with other bodies was key to success for the Campaign. “I commend the Campaign to you and heartily applauded the case put forward.”

“All anyone needs to know or do is there in the work you do” said Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, in what she called a “hymn of praise” to social scientists. She expressed anxiety about the future of the ‘crown jewels’ of social science – the longitudinal studies – as a global resource to help move society forward in a properly informed manner. “You can’t govern blind” she said, adding that good information is required to know how to spend wisely so as to save later and, more importantly, how to avoid creating a social deficit that would outlast the fiscal one.

“I am in favour of speaking up for social science and engaging with social science …and I value social science and support the event and the Campaign,” said David Willetts in response to the presentations. He noted that evidence based policy was particularly important in a situation of coalition government, where appealing to tribal loyalties could not work. “Most days I am at meetings where social science evidence is used,” he said, recalling the example of vaccines produced by medical research requiring complete understanding of the social situations which they were intended to help, if they were to be taken up successfully and not rejected as sinister attempts at imperialism. He denied that social science was under attack and wished to dispel misunderstandings that had formed about the outcome of the spending review, for teaching and research funding in particular. He looked forward to a successful and exciting Festival of Social Science in 2011.

Ziyad Marar of Sage publishing congratulated the Academy for promoting social science, as he spoke about socialsciencespace [www.socialsciencespace.com], the new blogging platform where social science disciplines can converge and discuss difficult and thorny issues.

A lively Questions and Answers session covered a variety of matters of concern to the Campaign including the need to identify and explain the ‘unreason’ that abounds, above all the media abuse of statistics and social science. Agreement was expressed that greater education of the public in mathematical language and understanding and greater correction of misleading journalism was a desperate need. Trevor Phillips urged the CfSS to make common cause with those involved in the understanding of science and language of mathematics to avoid “debates that are often preposterously nonsensical.” David Willetts urged the Campaign to seek to create balance in reporting through knowledge of the issues and by looking at the work done by the science media centre.

The Minister was challenged by several voices concerning the real status and future expectations of social science in terms of students and researchers, both academic and practitioner, were forcefully expressed by a variety of voices. Anxieties were expressed about the future supply chain of social scientists and the shape of social science to come, including the problems that would arise from increased concentration in localised areas and consequent lack of breadth and diversity of skills and talents.

As for the future of the proposed 2012 birth cohort study about which she was most anxious, Polly Toynbee was told simply to watch this space.