The Academy responded to the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) as it inquires into Whitehall’s ‘capacity to anticipate, analyse, assess and respond to the significant challenges facing the UK’ over the next decade.
PASC has previously been critical of the lack of joined up and strategic thinking in UK central government; its inquiry follows an investigation earlier this year by the Commons Science and Technology Committee into ‘horizon scanning’, the most obvious example of which are the Foresight studies produced by the Government Office for Science, which is part of the Business, Innovation and Skills Department.
We made the obvious point that whether they are called grand or global challenges, any list will involve subject matter – problems – that are the province of psychologists, behavioural scientists, geographers, economists, sociologists, demographers, political scientists and so on across the gamut of social science. In other words, the quality of foresight will depend on its social science input. But Whitehall has not recognised the social science contribution.
So we used the submission to PASC to make some points about how ‘science’ is understood and organised in central government (too narrowly) and reiterate the longstanding Academy argument that social science perspectives lack a senior custodian in government; the prime minister and cabinet secretary have no social-science informed interlocutor with status and standing. Proxy social science from the Government Chief Scientific Adviser is not enough.
The argument embraces economics, despite the existence of post of Chief Economic Adviser. This is a position within HM Treasury and although the postholder is also head of the Government Economic Service, the position serves the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than the government as a whole.
Proper horizon scanning would draw in expertise and insight from across the government machine but also (through the ESRC) link to sources of knowledge in universities, think tanks and international organisations. This underlines an argument the Academy has made before about the need for a more strategic approach to the social sciences in the UK.