“We can look forward with confidence to the future of the Academy and the future of social science,” said Professor Sir Howard Newby AcSS (below), as he delivered a valedictory speech to the 2013 President’s Lunch, stepping down after nearly 6 years as the the Academy’s President.
He paid tribute to the early influence of the sociologists Peter Townsend and Colin Bell on his work. He went on to talk about the relationship between social science and science policy and the world outside academia. Early social science work was rooted in the Fabian tradition of social improvement led and underpinned by the results of empirical enquiry.
Social science still has a role of turning private troubles into public issues, he said, borrowing the words of C Wright Mills, but conviction politics has undermined this.
Recalling his time at the ESRC, Sir Howard noted that he had learned ‘the hard way’ about the relationship between social science and policy making when he read the headline “Thatcher Bans Sex Survey”, referring to the issues surrounding the then nascent Sexual Attitudes Survey.
Evidence-based policy is no panacea, he went on. In social science work, evidence is rarely self-explanatory and normally requires interpretation, which takes the social scientist into the world of politics. His time at HEFCE showed him that social science in government was actually much more nuanced: the outcome of policy was very often the result of the psychodynamics of meetings rather than the evidence brought to those meetings. It was the advocacy and credibility of the individuals making the arguments that was the key. He also learned that ‘influence’ and ‘power’ were different things!
He quoted the truism that social scientists are never happier than when indulging in paranoia, but he warned that it simply did not do to seek an attack around every corner. The position of the ESRC today was very far away from the position he found it in in 1988. Nowadays social science is acceptable within the corridors of power; in David Willetts we have a Minister for Science and Universities who is prepared publicly to state the importance of the role of social science in public policy and in explaining the social issues surrounding technological advances.
Sir Howard drew attention to the difficult situation currently facing social science in the United States, where the overriding criteria for research funding have become the service of the nation’s security or economic interests. In the UK and in the rest of Europe, meanwhile, social science is a huge and recognised element in tackling the ‘grand challenges’ such as climate change and energy security. That social science is central to all these issues is unquestioned, and rightly so, he said, calling on the social science community to rise to the challenge.
Recalling his time at the Rural Economy and Land Use programme (RELU) in the wake of the Foot and Mouth and BSE crises, where it was seen that more people died (through suicide) as a result of the policy response to the crisis than of the crisis itself. Gordon Brown had recognised this issue and had encouraged the development of a multi-disciplinary programme and RELU had demanded collaboration between the natural and social sciences, focussing on knowledge exchange and becoming pioneers in co-production. It took time for the mutual suspicion between the two groups of scientists to be overcome and for each to develop respect for the other’s skills and knowledge. Natural scientists found the social scientists’ relative lack of numeracy skills problematic and the social scientists helped their counterparts to see the need for economic, political and sociological skills in particular in order to understand public reactions.
Sir Howard finished by paying tribute to Cary Cooper’s transformative effect on the Academy as its Chair, and to the professionalism and energetic commitment to the Academy displayed by Stephen Anderson and the staff team. Being President had been ‘great’, he said, and he wished Sir Ivor Crewe good luck as his successor.
His final act as the Academy’s President was to present certificates to 12 new Academicians.
Cary Cooper, Chair of the Academy, presented Howard with an engraved glass book and a Derby County football shirt – being a lifelong fan. He paid tribute to Howard’s helpfulness, availability and wise political counsel during his tenure, overseeing significant growth and development within the Academy.
In the circular Compass Room at the Lowry Centre in Salford, the Mayor of Salford, Cllr Ian Stewart, welcomed the Academy – represented by 70 Academicians, learned societies and guests – to his City.
A navy blue quilted overcoat was left at the venue after the event and has been taken back to the office. If it is yours, please contact Helen Spriggs the Academy Administrator, who will arrange for collection/return.