Restoring the social sciences to their rightful place

New report co-authored by RoRI’s James Wilsdon highlights the importance of social science to UK research and innovation

A new report published today by the UK’s Academy of Social Sciences & Sage Publishing has emphasised the vitally important, yet often poorly-understood, contribution of the social sciences to the UK’s research, development and innovation system.  

While the UK has significant strengths in the social sciences, recent UK policies have placed greater emphasis on new technologies and STEM related research and innovation. 

The report – Reimagining the recipe for research and innovation: the secret sauce of social science explores the symbiotic relationship between social science and STEM research, and argues that the social sciences act as a ‘secret sauce’ which can catalyse more effective and impactful research. 

To mark the report’s launch, Sage Publishing hosted an event at which  James Wilsdon, co-author of the report and Director of RoRI, presented its headline findings, followed by a response from Stian Westlake, Executive Chair of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and a roundtable discussion with senior representatives from government, universities, research funders and learned societies. 

The report highlights four ways in which the social sciences act as a ‘secret sauce’ in wider recipes for R&D.

  • The social sciences enable whole systems thinking. They help innovators, entrepreneurs and decision-makers to understand broader system capabilities and dynamics—including how economies and institutions function, and the place of productivity, skills, training and organisational culture.
  • The social sciences are vital for good policy development. New data in the report shows that social scientists play a disproportionately large role in informing policy debates in the UK and internationally. Around 3 per cent of publications supported by STEM-related research grants in the UK end up being cited in policy documents. This rises to 6 per cent of publications supported by social science-related grants and 7.5 per cent of publications from grants that can be characterised as interdisciplinary, often with STEM and social science collaborators.
  • The social sciences underpin smart and responsible innovation. New and emerging technologies depend upon social sciences for the legal, regulatory and ethical frameworks that are essential for them to advance in ways that maximise their opportunities, safeguard against risks, and protect the vulnerable. 
  • The social sciences are essential to international collaboration and our capacity to address shared challenges, including the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The UK’s international research and innovation strategy is underpinned by insights and expertise from the social sciences—including from business and management, politics, geography, area studies and international development.

In recent years, there’s been a narrowing of focus in government policy to Science and Technology, and less of the holistic, systems thinking that captures and values such connections and interdependencies.

Speaking at the launch, James Wilsdon, said:

“The insights and expertise of social scientists add flavour, depth and richness across the UK’s research and innovation system. Through their own work, and through collaboration with scientists, technologists and engineers, social scientists contribute in numerous ways to tackling economic, social and environmental priorities. 

But in recent years, there’s been a narrowing of focus in government policy to S&T, and less of the holistic, systems thinking that captures and values such connections and interdependencies. 

This needs to change: it’s time to restore the social sciences to their rightful place in the way we structure, plan and invest for a high-performing, transdisciplinary R&I system, capable of meeting the acute challenges of the next 20 years.”

‘Reimagining the Recipe for Research & Innovation: the secret sauce of social science’ is available to download free from the Academy of Social Sciences website.  

Read more in James’s article for Research Professional News: R&D Depends on a Special Ingredient.