A bleak future for social science?

SAGE and the British Academy were co-hosts of a packed out debate in London this week to discuss the future of the social sciences. We invited leading researchers, politicians, policy makers and the general public along to the Royal Institute to hear Professors Ian Diamond and Harvey Goldstein, Sir Michael Rutter, and Lord Richard Newby give their views on “the crucial role of social science.” It took place as part of the Economic Social and Research Council (ESRC) Festival of Social Science.

While the social science disciplines play a crucial role in contributing to a better quality of life, the tone of the discussion was markedly bleak, with large funding cuts looming, and an ‘anti-research’ mood within government.

Panelist Professor Ian Diamond (Chief Executive of the ESRC) commented that social science lies at the heart of understanding and tackling the complex challenges of society. SAGE’s Deputy Managing Director and Publishing Director, Ziyad Marar echoed these comments in his opening address, pointing to the government’s cabinet office priorities, which identify globalization, aging, family, crime, climate change, and well being as key areas.

Professor Diamond also noted the fragility of the sector, due to a “grey and greying” membership, with the majority of active academics in several disciplines over the age of 55. His proposed solution for this was to support not just young career researchers, but to engage with the schools sector to make children want to become social scientists in the future.

A key message from all panelists was that social science research can and does have direct relevance to policy making. Both Professor Harvey Goldstein and Sir Michael Rutter presented cases where studies on family and education have tested the validity of policies. A key issue was therefore how to ensure that the research outcomes were effectively communicated to policy makers.

Lord Richard Newby noted some of the issues facing social scientists, including the role of values in decision making, rather than evidence. He also cited the role of the public mood in influencing decisions. He viewed the current situation for social science as “pretty grim”, with the recent controversies surrounding climate change data marking an ‘anti-research’ mood within government. The situation is also made worse by a current focus on physical science subjects, where the spotlight for funding has recently shifted.

While the future looks bleak, there was much support for the value of the social sciences, and discussion of ways social researchers can help to promote the value of their work. Professor Diamond promoted the need for strong formal training, which would in turn help to advance better methodologies and interdisciplinary collaboration; Professor Goldstein promoted the need for stronger statistical training to provide better evidence; and Lord Newby promoted the need to engage with the civil service more directly, as a route in to influencing ministers. Further comment from the audience included the increased alliances between social scientists and other sciences; and the need to engage with the audit commission to call government to account on their policy decisions.

Further information, including audio from the event is available from http://www.britac.ac.uk/events/2010/tbt/index.cfm. A video was also recorded and should be available in the next few days.

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