We must show the ways ‘social science can give rise to public benefit’ says Sharon Witherspoon in 3rd SAGE CfSS Annual Lecture

December 10, 2015

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Leading research funder and former Nuffield Foundation Director Sharon Witherspoon MBE FAcSS told the Academy’s Campaign for Social Science’s 3rd Annual Lecture that the social sciences must be ‘audacious’ and use their ‘elbow power’ to give rise to public benefit, while highlighting some of the internal as well as external challenges ahead.

Read the transcript of the main address [CfSS website]

In wide-ranging speech entitled ‘Social science for public good: who benefits, who pays?’, Ms Witherspoon assessed the strengths and weakness of the field, calling on colleagues to be more engaged and take greater responsibility for closing skills gaps that threaten to undermine its impact and relevance to policy.

Her December 7th speech followed the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review two weeks earlier, in which the real-terms protection of the science budget, and the implementation of the Nurse Review recommendations to create a single UK science funding body, have been met with guarded support.

“By any measure, UK social science is strong” and plays a vital role “in helping us understand our world, and dare I say, [in helping] use that understanding to make it better,” she told the audience at the lecture in Whitehall.

She warned against, however, an instrumentalist outlook. “I take it for granted that social science isn’t important solely because of its immediate usefulness – to government or policy-making, the private sector or business skills, or even for wider public debate. Social science is part of the general knowledge that underpins our culture,” she said.

There is, nonetheless, “little room for complacency. As a community, I think it behoves us to examine ourselves some of the areas in which we might grade ourselves as ‘could do better.”

One such area was in quantitative skills and data collection. “We simply have far less empirical research than I would argue we objectively need.” While cautioning against a “rhetorical cry to jump on the data bandwagon”, Ms Witherspoon said this shortcoming was not to be blamed on others, but was reflective of the “way the social science community itself is structured.”

Many disciplines that have substantive understanding of particular issues have not been buttressed by the quantitative training to properly look at outcomes, with a distinct divide between “those with data collection skills and those who would regard themselves primarily as analysts.”

She cited the notorious 2015 General Election polls as an example that “not all data collection difficulties – in this case in getting a truly representative sample – can be compensated for by sophisticated analysis.”

“In the future, intelligent use of ‘big data’ will absolutely make it more, not less, important to understand the process by which data are generated and constructed, in order to avoid drawing misleading conclusions.”

“Too many social scientists lack some of the basic tools to think about issues of representativeness, to assess good versus bad evidence or to tackle issues that would benefit from [other] disciplinary paradigms and assumptions.

“We will find some areas of social science overtaken by those who simply use big data and coded algorithms if we cannot engage as a community with these issues.”

Ms Witherspoon spoke of the need for a more concentrated focus on core maths as one of a number of “pathways for addressing this [skills] deficit if UK social science is to make the step change in its tool kit that is needed to address these deficiencies,” she said.

This is “vital to the intellectual well-being of our social sciences. I fear if we don’t have the confidence to tackle this, we’re actually undermining our capacity to improve.”

She emphasised the need for these skills in demanding better evidence if crucial social science expertise is going to continue to be used in influencing public policy. “Creating that demand – not just among social scientists, but among a wider-range of the public – also means saying that public policy discussions ought to be linked with better evidence.

“We simply haven’t captured the public imagination, much less public commitment, that it’s actually important to collect and look at better evidence before governments roll out what are essentially experiments in people’s lives.

“But we in the social science community must also take some responsibility for not engaging in wider public discussions and trying to stimulate more demand for these experiments.”

Conscious that any discussion of data raises immediate questions of methodology and privacy, she expressed concern that the focus on individual consent risked “replicating a privatisation of resources – in this case evidence – that doesn’t serve the wider public good but those of powerful interests.”

She set out a series of principles that would create stronger independent scrutiny mechanisms in data collection and use, including lay involvement in decisions that gives public benefit research some way of “ensuring the interests of the collectivity, and not just whoever happens to be the data owner.” Promoting wider social democratic principles to ensure scrutiny of policy will also help to understand who benefits, and who loses, by particular social changes.

The need to make a strong case for the public benefit of social science research must be understood in the context of the external challenges that “will change what we do over the next twenty years,” she said, as certain “architectural” changes brought on by both the Spending Review and Nurse Review would have an impact on funding.

“I am mindful of the value of pluralism in funding. There are few private sector sources of funding that get translated into public benefit social science research. Direct government funding and research council funding need to be preserved and over time, I hope, will grow.

“I think the sign of a social science community that was delivering on all its potential would be that new funders would be called into being at the sight of all the ways that robust social science can give rise to public benefit.”

Ms Witherspoon also highlighted the integral place of multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary research in tackling some of the most important social problems, pointing to numerous examples in which collaboration was key.

“We expect economic studies to attend to behavioural factors and social context; we expect studies of health to consider the context within which health care is provided and the social structure that presents challenges and solutions to individual behaviour. The world – and policy certainly – would be poorer if social science didn’t confidently play its full role in examining these and other challenges. And I would argue social science will be poorer too.

“This sort of multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary work doesn’t just happen, it’s not just bringing together short term, ad hoc teams. It requires social structures – be they teams, institutes or funding streams – that require infrastructure investment.”

The event was introduced by Professor James Wilsdon FAcSS, Chair of the Campaign, who said: “While we welcomed, along with many across the research sector, the settlement for research in the Spending Review, we do sound perhaps a more cautious note than some as we wait to see exactly what’s been tucked into that headline £4.7bn figure, and how new schemes like the £1.5bn Global Challenges Fund drawn from DFIDs budget, will work in practice.

“As the Campaign looks ahead to the Spring of next year, when we’ll be marking our fifth birthday, we’re going to continue to gather evidence and press the case for a healthy, properly funded and intelligently joined up approach to social science research policy and practice.”

SAGE’s Global Publishing Director, Ziyad Marar, said during the event that, in the context of the dramatic change underway, it is important to think about the make-up of the social science of the future and to continue to “link up conversations” to help shape the as yet unpredicted terrain.

Coverage in the Times Higher

Coverage in the Guardian

This was the third lecture in the annual series – last year’s was given by LSE Director Craig Calhoun, with David Willetts, the then Universities and Science Minister, delivering the 2013 lecture.

This news item first appeared on the Campaign for Social Science website

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