Willetts’ message to social scientists: collaborate with hard sciences to show value

Yesterday I was one of more than 200 attendees at a London event launching a report called ‘Making the Case for the Social Sciences’. Produced by the Academy of Social Sciences, and sponsored by the Economic Social and Research Council, the report contains a series of case studies that aim to show the contribution that social scientists make to the well being of society.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/9377129 w=400&h=300]

The gauntlet was well and truly thrown down to the audience of social scientists; policy makers and government by a panel including  David Willetts MP and Tony Wright MP. Increased collaboration with the hard sciences; using promotion and lay summaries; and playing an active role in educating the policy community were just some of the edicts they presented. With higher education funding under fire, speakers noted the critical timing for social scientists in getting the value of their work noticed.

David Willets MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, said his basic message to the group was “if we don’t study our own society then who will?” He put forward the view that the social sciences must be studied rigorously alongside hard sciences, and that in many ways they complement each other. For example he noted on the nuclear power debate that it is not just the physics that is important but also people’s perceptions. Dr Willetts also stressed the need for evidence-based research in influencing policy decisions. He also commented on the value of a rounded picture of research outcomes: while it was easy to support evidence-based policy when the results are positive, the decisions were harder when the evidence was negative. Yet negative results contribute just as much as positive ones and are just as important. He added, however, that it was unrealistic to hope for a purely evidence-based approach, as politicians could not wait for a critical mass of research to be reached.
While there is more work to be done in bridging the communications gap between policy makers and social researchers, panellists and audience participants concurred a way to measure impact and value is crucial. Professor Cary Cooper, Chair of the Academy of Social Sciences (ACSS) noted that the social sciences are very much in the public eye, with front page headlines this week covering social science problems including childcare and parenting, ageing; and childhood obesity. ‘Making the Case for the Social Sciences’, the report the ACSS has produced sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) sets out some of the ways social scientists have made a contribution to these areas, and is just one strategy the ACSS are using to champion the value of the social sciences at this crucial time.
The report is available for free online. if you would like a copy to host on your own website, contact the ACSS.
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