A make-or-break decade: evidence from the social sciences must be at the heart of post-pandemic policymaking

22 June 2021

By Will Hutton FAcSS, President, Academy of Social Sciences

Tamara Menzi on Unsplash

In this scene-setting piece, incoming President of the Academy of Social Sciences, Will Hutton, sets out his thoughts on the vital role social sciences will play in shaping a better post-pandemic future.

The decade ahead is going to be one of the most challenging in recent British history. Rarely has any country had to deal simultaneously with so many crises, many self-made. There is the aftermath of Brexit which has created trade barriers, especially in services,  which are already proving economically damaging. Regional inequality is higher than in any other similar economy, life expectancy has declined amid widespread poverty and social disadvantage, productivity growth has dropped way below trend and a step-change in innovation and investment remains elusive. Societal dysfunction and disadvantage drive much of our politics, especially the rise of nationalism.

On top there is the ongoing fall out from COVID with its multiple economic and social risks, and navigating our way to net zero. Worse, there is little national consensus about what are the best responses – except that there needs to be some, and they should be effective. COVID has taught us the value of science. Navigating the next decade will require the very best of social science.

As the incoming president of the Academy of Social Sciences, one of my tasks is to make social science and its evidence a central part of the national debate, informing policymaking in government, finance and business. This is a moment for us to rise to the occasion.

An immediate objective is to extend the Campaign for Social Science’s successful COVID Hub. I will champion the case for a ‘Sage-type’ group of social science advisers, feeding into a newly created post of chief government social scientist, to analyse the most pressing issues relating to the pandemic.

These could include the creation of a rapid social science response capacity to investigate , for example, what it takes to persuade individuals from varying socio-economic backgrounds to self-isolate if tested positive; understanding why the disease spreads so differently in different post codes; or the case for and against introducing a form of pass – even transitionally and time-limited – allowing greater freedoms for the fully vaccinated.

Another priority is to inform policy choices on ‘levelling up’, described by one commentator as a “ zeppelin floating on the political horizon carrying no cargo of policy”. Our job must be to help create some cargo. What is the opportunity for creating dynamic economic clusters? Is it possible to chart the differential impact of initiatives on transport, education and training? What type of anchor institutions trigger the maximum spill-over and multiplier effects? Have universities emerged as important growth catalysts? How to create local leaders and give them autonomy and resources? All require the force of social science research. Here, the Academy is collating and disseminating some of the best work around. Up to 25 initiatives nationwide have already proven their worth, some of which could be scaled up, on which we will be publishing this Autumn. We must follow through with more.

The Academy’s strategy calls for more work and talk across disciplines, to monitor and steward the health of the social sciences and to inspire the full diversity of young people to see them as the route to a brilliant range of well-paid and societally vital careers. I wholly support and endorse them all.

Everyone knows the background for higher education, succouring all this intellectual effort,  looks murky. I have long argued for raising the status of further education and vocational training, with clear pathways to qualifications whose value is as well understood in the labour market as a university degree. There should be parity between further, vocational and higher education. But this must  not mean levelling down universities. The university is an indivisible whole, where the freedom to teach, learn, research, disseminate and discuss stands and falls together. A breach in one affects all.  This is something that must concern us all.

We have been following the science throughout the pandemic. Time now to follow the social sciences.

This is an adapted version of a piece that originally appeared in Research Fortnight.