Springing into social action by Audrey Osler

18 March 2011

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When given the proper level of recognition, social science can change people’s lives for the better, declares Audrey Osler, Professor of Education at the University of Leeds, in an opinion piece for the Campaign’s website:

Why, when we have such talented social scientists, has the impact of academic research on policymaking been limited? This question was posed last December by John Denham in a talk he gave to the UK Academy of Social Science in London. A former government minister and former Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Denham suggested that there needs to be better communication between academic researchers and those in government.

We must examine whether researchers are asking the wrong questions, or whether policymakers are simply blind to their need for expert opinion, preferring to reply on ill-informed or common sense solutions that offer quick fixes. So too should we question how far academics should focus their research on issues to which governments need answers. The solutions to such questions are complex and not necessarily clear-cut, although the debate is of some importance in any democracy.

Combating marginalisation
Whereas policymakers and politicians are often ready to admit a lack of specialised knowledge and a need for informed advice in the natural sciences, the social sciences may appear more accessible and, ironically, lead some to conclude that expert advice is not needed. Social scientists are in danger of being marginalised when political leaders feel they can manage without them.

At a time when economic turmoil and anxieties about global recession dominate the headlines, academic researchers may feel under considerable pressure to not only justify research spending, but to even defend their very existence. This pressure is possibly greater for social scientists than their colleagues engaged in science and technology, because the public may know relatively little about what they do, let alone how that is relevant to their lives and wellbeing. Moreover, perhaps here is the clue to more successful communication between policymakers and academics: it needs to be part of more effective all-round communication, particularly between social scientists and the public at large.

Yet it is in difficult times that politicians and social scientists have possibly the most to gain from establishing cooperative working relationships. In troubled times, social science really comes into its own, offering political leaders and decision-makers valuable evidence to support them in policy. Politicians are looking for effective ways of addressing complex social problems, such as regenerating the economy and addressing social inequality. They literally cannot afford to make mistakes or to experiment with a series of policy options. Social scientists, faced with difficult real-life problems and pressing issues such as employment, housing and education, have a unique opportunity to demonstrate their creativity. Research that is focused on, and relevant to, policy can make a real difference to citizens’ lives and futures. Faced with enquiries about what social science can do for an individual, scientists can respond with a range of lively examples from recent research.

Real-life applications
Social scientists help us to imagine alternative futures – and social science can open up this debate to give us a say in its formation. In the 19th Century, when social science was in its early stages, it helped people to understand the consequences and application of the new technologies of the age, such as steam power. Nanotechnology and advances in medical research now have a significant impact on the way we live, but they present us with a bewildering range of ethical, legal and social issues. It really is not sufficient to rely on the scientists; we need social scientists to analyse and critique what is going on. In this way, we will make informed choices that shape the future.

Social scientists also contribute to our health and wellbeing. From sports sociologists to public health experts, from those interpreting medical statistics to those evaluating policies for our care in old age – social scientists make a key contribution, ensuring our health, leisure and social care services work to the best effect. Social geographers at the University of Sheffield, for example, have shown that those who do not follow eating advice are not simply weak-willed or ignorant, but that eating habits are influenced by a whole range of circumstances. Some apparently unhealthy choices may seem rational: for example, if the person doing the shopping knows that others will simply not eat the healthy option and it will just go to waste, they just may not buy it. So, it is no good to merely give people a booklet on healthy eating; effective nutritional advice needs to be tailored to people’s everyday lives and contexts.

In addition to this, social science can help to create safer neighbourhoods. Sociologists at Nottingham Trent University worked closely with police to reduce crime through a method that involved scanning for patterns. They were able to identify some that regular police work had not picked up on, so avoiding guesswork and lost time. A technique called situational crime prevention, developed by the same team, is now regularly used by the police working with the public and private sectors. Together, they make things more difficult for would-be criminals. For example, in one area there was a serious problem of lead being stolen from community building roofs. By working with dealers in the scrap metal market and persuading them to keep records, it then became too risky to buy what could be stolen lead.

Encouraging a fresh look
Social science has the potential to change the world for the better. We can generally agree that the world needs to be a safer place where all people can enjoy basic dignity and human rights.

Social scientists working in interdisciplinary teams have made their mark in the area of human welfare and development. They are concerned with the social and economic advancement of humanity at large. They work with government institutions, UN organisations, social services, funding agencies and the media, influencing the work of strategists, planners, teachers and programme officers in developing and growing economies, such as India, so that advances impact on the lives of the poorest members of society. For example, social scientists from the Delhi School of Economics are cooperating with colleagues at The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, to explore the impact on women of legislation in India to guarantee minimum wages for rural unskilled manual labourers. They found the new law provided opportunities for some women to become wage earners where none had existed before, reducing the risk of hunger and the chances of avoiding hazardous work. However, they also identified barriers to women benefiting from the changes, including harassment at the worksite.

Social science can broaden our horizons. In debates about feminism, peace, ecology, social movements and much more, social science offers each of us new perspectives and new ways of understanding. Moreover, whether our idea of relaxation is visiting a museum, watching soaps or chatting online, social science encourages a fresh look at our everyday activities and culture.

Read the original article in Public Service Review: European Science and Technology – Issue 14