The social sciences have a fundamental unity, Campaign roadshow hears

26 March 2015

Eric Thomas2

The Campaign’s Business of People report was written with the forthcoming general election and government spending review in mind, its main author, David Walker FAcSS, said at a roadshow yesterday. Read the report

Mr Walker told an audience of 40 at the University of Bristol that “the report is geared to the moment, so inevitably it has a positive and a positivist tone. There no point in putting something into the public domain at this moment that won’t at least peak some interest on the part of the powers that be.”

So the report emphasised the way that social science could help tackle societal and economic issues such as improving productivity and nurturing innovation, he said, as well as health emergencies such as Ebola.

To do this it was necessary to work in an interdisciplinary way. “We have to bring together perspectives and data gathered by different disciplines. There comes a moment when we should express to those in parliament, the corporate sector, the third sector, higher education and government that the social sciences have a fundamental unity, to which they bring a diversity of methods.

“What we are now trying to do is to take that message out to practising social scientists, in not just higher education but other institutions, to emphasise unity and to encourage them to work together more than they have.”

The Business of People report made the case for an increase on the 1.8 per cent of gross domestic product spent on research and development. “That ought to increase if we want UK to be on a path to sustainable growth in which the social sciences do and must figure.”

Within Whitehall the role of Chief Social Science Advisor should be created, so that the government could receive importance advice at the highest level. See full recommendations

Mr Walker said that the social scientists should not compete with colleagues in the natural sciences, “but rise with them to make a general case for science and innovation investment.”

The Campaign’s Research and Policy Officer, Roses Leech-Wilkinson, said that it was grateful for the support of universities such as Bristol, partly for its funding but “also to give us legitimacy when we speak up on behalf of the social sciences to government.”

She said the Campaign was launched in 2011 to promote the value of social science to the public, media and Parliament. This was done “out of a recognition that the natural sciences have plenty of allies in Whitehall,” which had arisen in part from the success of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

The event was chaired by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol, Professor Sir Eric Thomas. He said that is was “really important that we debate and prosecute the case for social science research across the totalities of the universities and research sector.” Bristol was successful in social sciences, with high scores in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework exercise and strong interdisciplinary work, he said.

Professor Wendy Larner FAcSS, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law, said that the challenge was not just national but international. “Governments, foundations and companies around the world often much better resourced than we are,” she said. Tapping into funding streams in regions such as Europe and south east Asia was becoming increasingly important, as was adapting to a new emphasis on larger research programmes.

Social science was good at “blue sky thinking and agenda-setting concepts” and needed to be included from the beginning of interdisciplinary research projects and not as an afterthought, she said.

“In terms of addressing the challenge that the report puts in terms of being visible being high profile and proving our worth – I think we are doing this, and we need to have a very clear understanding about the changing world in which we are operating.”

Professor Judith Squires FAcSS, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students, said that it was important for social scientists to campaign for the continued role of the Economic and Social Research Council, which was “crucial for realising potential of social science.”

• The Bristol roadshow was one of a series being run around the UK. Details of the events, and to book a place.