Reflections on the Academy of Social Sciences: 2015-21

18 May 2021

By Professor Roger Goodman FAcSS, President, Academy of Social Sciences

It has been a real privilege – and a genuine pleasure – to have been Chair of the Academy’s Council since 2015 and President for the last 18 months. It is also something of a shock to reflect on just how much has changed in those six years – in the wider world, in UK higher education, and in the Academy itself.

The major global issues of the last six years have demanded the attention of social scientists as never before: climate change; the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements; the rise of populism; and, of course, the pandemic which has speeded up social change so dramatically.

The UK‘s tragi-drama of Brexit has seen it go through three Prime Ministers, while the minster responsible for higher education has changed no less than six times in six years.

In the midst of all this apparent chaos, the Academy of Social Sciences has steadily focussed on its core business – promoting the social sciences in the UK for public benefit. The full account of the activities of the Academy over the past six years can be seen in the Annual Reports. What they do not fully reflect, however, is the incredibly narrow base on which all this activity is built, the challenges that the Academy has faced and the dedication of those who brought it to where it is today.

The Academy owes its existence to its (currently 46) Member Learned Societies and the termly meetings which bring together their Chief Executives and Presidents – representing between them almost 100,000 members – is evidence of the robust strength of social sciences in the UK. As they have shown in the discussions around open access publishing, working collectively they present a very powerful force.

In similar fashion, the engagement of the Fellows of the Academy ensures a flourishing future. The pleasure that election to a Fellowship brings an individual, their colleagues and their institutions can be seen on Twitter following every round of announcements; the hours of voluntary time that members of the Fellowship dedicate to the Academy’s committees is less visible. It has been a particular honour – if at times somewhat daunting – to chair a Council with such distinguished and engaged colleagues

The Campaign for Social Sciences has gone from strength to strength in the past six years under three successive chairs – James Wilsdon, Shamit Saggar and Bobby Duffy – who have each brought their own distinctive and highly complementary skill sets. The biggest compliment that has been paid to the Campaign was from its partners; virtually all of them recommitted their funding at the height of the pandemic when many were making cuts elsewhere in their budgets.

The Academy is now fully recognised and widely appreciated on the UK higher education front. The views of its policy team – under Sharon Witherspoon with her unparalleled knowledge of UK social science – are increasingly sought by government agencies. The Academy’s project to monitor the social sciences in higher education at the current time of change is seen as vitally important by the HE community. Its work to champion the social sciences first and foremost sits alongside a wider collaboration with the British Academy and others in making the case for SHAPE subjects to be treated with the same respect as STEM ones.

The formal duties of the President are not onerous: to chair the meetings of the Learned Societies, Council and the AGM; to represent the Academy externally; and appoint the Chief Executive of the Academy, subject to approval of Council. The last of these is by far the most important. Stephen Anderson and his team stabilised the Academy when it was going through a rocky period in the mid-2000s and early 2010s, steadily grew its Fellowship and income, and established the Campaign.  Rita Gardner, with her new team, is already taking the Academy to the next level in the 2020s. In a very short space of time, Rita has shepherded through an ambitious new strategy, brought in new sources of public and private funding, and, as this year’s Annual Report will show, has dealt brilliantly with the multiple challenges of the pandemic. I personally believe that enabling this development by persuading Rita to consider taking on the role of Chief Executive at this crucial point in its history is the single most important contribution I have made to the Academy over the past six years.

I look forward to the Academy’s bright future and warmly congratulate and welcome my successor, Will Hutton. I end though with a plea that now is the time for the Academy to commission a history for its 40th anniversary – which it will celebrate in 2022 – before the details are lost in the mists of time. There is a very interesting story to tell.