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Use ‘impact agenda’ to prove value, social sciences urged

LSE scholars call for ‘shorter, better, faster, free’ studies and bigger share of research funding

People using smartphones on subway

Source: Alamy

Fast train of thought: social science researchers are urged to use social media to share new findings directly with the public

Researchers at the London School of Economics have urged social scientists to join forces across disciplines and make far better use of the “impact” agenda to demonstrate how much they can contribute to the economy and society.

Their call follows research published this week that suggests that social science is worth around £2.7 billion in direct value to the UK economy. “Nobody had a picture of the scale of university social science and how strong it is in terms of bringing in students and exporting research to other parts of the world,” said Patrick Dunleavy, professor of political science and public policy at the LSE. “With the indirect and induced multiplier effects it comes to just under £5 billion.”

The data have emerged from a project carried out since 2009 by Professor Dunleavy and his colleagues in the LSE’s department of government, senior research fellow Simon Bastow and research fellow Jane Tinkler. They have just published the results in a new book, The Impact of the Social Sciences: How Academics and Their Research Make a Difference.

Although the term “impact” “may have a dubious heritage” and crops up so often in academic conversations “for bureaucratic reasons”, argued Professor Dunleavy, it is also “a great lens for focusing on how you need to change”.

With social science now at a crossroads, their book aims to provide detailed evidence of just how important these disciplines are to public policymaking, business and the third sector, and of the influence they have, via the media, on public thinking.

The authors also hope to strengthen the case that the social sciences deserve far more than their present share of around 12 per cent of the total research grants and contract funds flowing to UK universities, while STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects get 85 per cent of total research grants.

“We are arguing that we need to stop thinking in terms of social versus physical sciences,” explained Professor Dunleavy, “but in terms of three categories of disciplines, concerned with human-dominated systems, human-influenced systems and almost completely natural systems, most of which are off-planet.”

He said that although the social sciences are focused on “human-dominated systems, essentially the detailed organisation of an advanced industrial society”, they are increasingly important in the study of “human-influenced systems” such as the planet’s climate. “We’ve got to step up the way that STEM and social sciences interact and integrate in those areas too,” he said.

There is also another reason to re-examine what most social scientists see as an imbalance in funding between STEM and social sciences, Professor Dunleavy said.

Today, he noted, “78 per cent of our economy is service sector. Politicians, administrators and business leaders in the past have tended to have an image of ‘research’ that’s very [much about] metal-bashing or looking through a microscope.

“Should we be putting quite such a preponderance of our research into a sector that leads down to a pretty small manufacturing base, when services are the most important sector of the British economy (although obviously STEM can be relevant there, too)?”

He added: “It’s a question for the government of really facing up to the modern world, not living in the past and a techno-nationalist post-war dream of ‘the white heat of technology’ that is going to change everything. We have to look realistically at what the British economy is doing, and likely to be doing.”

Along with all this, in Professor Dunleavy’s view, should come a recognition of the urgent need for the social sciences themselves to adapt to today’s brave new world and adopt his mantra of “shorter, better, faster, free”.

That means an enthusiastic embrace of social media such as blogs, which can be “a hell of a lot better than anything in the quality press” and give academics an opportunity “to explain social science in a much more adult way than we have done before, and without any of the distorting media effects”.

Even more important is seizing the possibilities of “big data”, which can provide rapid insight into major issues and, claimed Professor Dunleavy, “make information available to policymakers and enable them to cash out immediate gains from research, in ways previously associated only with the STEM sciences”.

He added that this was important as there were “still large areas of the social sciences trundling on with massive longitudinal surveys that take years to set up and years to analyse, and deliver results at best three years out of date by the time they reach a policymaker’s desk”.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

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