Whatever the future of Scotland after the 2015 general election, Scotland’s social scientists are looking ahead with confidence. The recent joint meeting convened by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Campaign for Social Science reflected institutional divergence between Scotland and England but also in the place of social science in government.
Of course contributors to the June 17 event did not ignore differences of view, for example over the Scottish government’s plans for university governance. But to visitors from London the ease connection between research and the Scottish state is impressive – personified on the day by the attendance of Angela Constance, cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, the permanent secretary of the Scottish government Sir Peter Housden, the Scottish government’s chief social researcher Audrey MacDougall , its social policy adviser Professor Carol Tannahill of the Glasgow Centre for Population Health and Professor Alice Brown, former vice-principal of Edinburgh University, former general secretary of the RSE and now chair of the Scottish Funding Council.
Attendees at the event included both distinguished social scientists – including Professor Charlie Jeffrey, vice principal of Edinburgh University and leader of the Economic & Social Research Council’s future of the UK and Scotland project – and the former Scottish Auditor General, Robert Black.
To kick off, Professor James Wilsdon, chair of the CfSS and David Walker, lead author of The Business of People, set the scene. The emphasis, in Scotland no less than at Westminster and Whitehall, was on justifying research funding by its contribution to economic growth. ‘Place’ was increasingly a factor in UK government thinking about the allocation of money, raising a possible conflict with research excellence as the principal criterion.
Some social scientists were dismayed by the positivistic colouring this could give research.
One imminent question is whether UK research organisation needed better to reflect Scotland – whether the strong SNP contingent at Westminster would insist on it. The research councils said in many subjects – and across social science – Scottish researchers received more than they would on a strict population basis.
How far would higher education policy diverge, as new arrangements for postgraduate loans were introduced in England and Russell Group leaders talked of ‘self-privatisation’ by the elite universities, whose ranks include the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
David Walker pondered whether there is such a thing as ‘Scottish social science’ as opposed to social science practised by people who happen to be located in institutions in the country. On one side there are strong and distinct traditions of thought in economic and sociology reaching back to Adam Smith and David Hume, also a distinct set of institutions that, for example, make data linkage easier than in England. But, he added, ‘there’s no denying the delocalisation of academic life’.
Professor Wilsdon concluded with an affirmation of the value of a UK-wide campaign, allowing social scientists in Scotland to share insights and pool their strength with colleagues elsewhere. The value of an umbrella body for social science was shown over such common questions as research excellence and open access and by the need to ensure comparability between data sets when collection methods might differ across the UK.
In their presentations, Scotland-based contributors testified to the recognition given to evidence derived from research in Scottish government decision-making, also the broad sympathy among social scientists in the country for the headline aims of the government on fairness, democratic renewal, social justice and inclusive economic growth. Social science is closely linked to policy and implementation, for example in public health, low pay and the living wage, and looked-after children.
Sir Peter Housden, proud (he said) of his sociology degree from the University of Essex, noted that the civil service lacked ‘agility’ and was less and less able to deploy the resources to do research and analysis itself – it has to reach out to universities. Intermediary bodies between the research coalface and policy became more important.
The minister affirmed the Scottish National Party’s ‘systematic commitment to the best evidence in all areas’, citing the government’s support for the longitudinal study Growing Up in Scotland and studies of health and wellbeing. Engagement with research in Edinburgh contrasted with the situation in London, she noted. Indeed, the position of social science in Scottish government is ‘positive’, Dr MacDougall affirmed.
Professor Brown noted the various SFC initiatives to strengthen social science training and data collection and analysis along with social science contributions to business enterprise and workplace innovation. Professor Tannahill enlisted social science in combatting inequality, and its ‘downwards pull on economic growth’.
Not everything in the garden is lovely. Iain Gray, acting leader of the Scottish Labour Party and Labour leader in the Scottish parliament from 2008-2011, said politicians north of the border, as elsewhere, often misunderstood ‘basic principles of causality’. Across large areas (he cited GM crops, nuclear power and fiscal policy) politicians would resist the findings of science and disinterested analysis. The upshot was that social scientists needed a thick skin.
Gray’s former parliamentary colleague Professor Susan Deacon of the University of Edinburgh – once minister for health at Holyrood – noted that certain areas remain ‘no go’ for political and policy debate. Social science inquiry should not be deterred from such thorny questions as sectarian (wrong word, she said, we are required to say ‘faith’) schools. Other sensitive topics included pupil attainment in Scotland’s schools, sexually transmitted disease and the classification of drugs. She urged social scientists to ‘get out there and shape debate’.
Social science had gone missing, it was argued, in analysis tax and spend. Scotland did not have enough economists interested in Scotland; it lacked a world-class centre of applied economic research analogous to the Centre for the Microeconomic Analysis of Public Policy at the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Fiscal issues had been key to the Scottish referendum debate, said Professor David Bell of Stirling University, who proceeded to remind the audience of some home truths. The rich for the purposes of higher rates of income tax were small in number and there were limits to their share. Pitching marginal rates too high could see people working fewer hours or emigrating. The empirical evidence from, for example, Denmark is that people do respond to higher rates.
And yet counter examples exist. In discussion, evidence was cited from social science underpinning policy on childcare, the ban on smoking in public places and minimum pricing of alcohol – all three areas where Scottish policy has differed from that followed by the government in London.
Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University and the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen) reminded the RSE audience that Scotland’s future was far from settled: it is unclear whether devolution has stimulated, and continues to stimulate, demands for more devolution, or independence.
Questions of attitudes and willingness to sustain higher levels of tax in the event of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland demanded research, he said. One thing was sure, he concluded: ‘British politics’ has come to an end.
Video to follow…