Social science: why does it matter?

Social science provides a vital critical perspective on policy – but in a service-driven economy it also has many practical applications, argues David Walker, head of policy at the Academy of Social Sciences and the Campaign for Social Science.

Social science is vital to an economy driven by service sectors such as caring. Picture credit: Gareth Williams

Here’s an equation for the age of austerity. Public money is tight, science and innovation investment included. But if productivity grew, the tax take would expand and public revenues rise. So, if science spending adds to productive capacity (for which there is substantial evidence) there’s a good reason for the next government to put it high up the list of fiscal priorities.

‘Science’ has to include investigation and analysis by sociologists, economists, psychologists and all the other members of the social science tribe. That isn’t just because, as the government’s chief science adviser said recently, knowledge is a ‘totality’: you can’t segment and subdivide its onrush. Improving the productiveness of organisations depends on inquiry and methods leading to better understanding of attitudes, business processes and behaviour, and that’s the business of social science. It is developing a new ‘science of innovation’ – to explicate how new machines, new products and services are picked up and applied inside companies and organisations – and why not?

The UK economy is heavily tilted towards the service sector. Increases in productivity depend upon gains in professional services, finance and such sectors as education and healthcare. The technology they use does matter, but so do the disciplines examining the dynamics of markets and the culture of partnerships and firms.

So we argue in The Business of People, the significance of social science in the next decade recently published by Sage for the Campaign for Social Science. It emphasises the utility of social science, how the knowledge it generates can be an instrument of socio-economic improvement. That’s necessary at this stage of the Westminster political and policy cycle as manifestos are brandished and would-be MPs look to what they might accomplish in office.

 A critical challenge

That emphasis does not downplay or diminish the critical capacity of social science, which will often upend conventional wisdom and challenge existing practice. (For example, social science questions the imperative behind fiscal austerity.) But accentuating the positive does allow social science to stand alongside advocates for the ‘STEM’ subjects – science, techology, engineering and mathematics. The Campaign for Social Science maintains close and cooperative relations with them as they make the case for public investment to support manufacturing and pharmaceuticals.

The Campaign for Social Science was set up four years ago to inform public policy. It sprang from the Academy of Social Sciences, whose thousand fellows are eminent academics and practitioners in business, government and civil society. Forty seven learned societies are also members, representing 90,000 social scientists in varied settings.

The big questions

The Business of People looks ahead to the challenges and opportunities facing the UK, including the integrity of the UK itself and its membership of the European Union.

You don’t have to scan the far horizon to see the UK is ageing. We face questions about wellbeing, gender, diversity, infectious disease, the intergenerational balance, security …however extended the list, most themes demand more not less understanding of society and economy. Greg Clark, minister for science in the Cameron coalition, has cited the contribution of anthropologists to eradicating Ebola in West Africa by directing attention to hand and body-washing practices and the importance of ritual.

Another focus of our report is how well government is advised. The position of chief science adviser has tended to be held by Fellows of the Royal Society, distinguished biologists, chemists and so on. But the world cannot be understood through the prism of the STEM disciplines. Climate change is not just about atmospheric physics: it’s about inequality, attitudes, patterns of urban settlement, corporate interests, engrained patterns of behaviour and so on.

In the report, we call for an uplift of 10 per cent in real terms for the science and innovation budget over the course of the next Westminster parliament – but only if the additional funds are earmarked for working joining the perspectives of the physical and life sciences with those from social science, the arts and humanities.

Culling badgers was about much more than how viruses are transmitted; government had to factor in farmers’ incomes, public sentiment and complex cost-benefit considerations.

Dealing with disease depends on understanding why some people are more predisposed to ill health, why changing behaviour is difficult – as much as discovering new drugs and improving healthcare.

Government needs high-grade social science advice. Whitehall should have a chief social scientist – someone who can explain the wider ramifications of innovation and change in technology and laboratory work, and the significance of innovation in behaviour and public expectations. Not just Whitehall, either – similar advice is needed in the devolved administrations and at both the European Union and local government levels. Just as big companies such as Google are starting to employ chief social scientists, so government needs to complement the knowledge and experience of science advisers with better understanding of human systems, behaviour and socio-economic dynamics.