The social science impact challenge

LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog has been an invaluable work companion in recent years, a gold mine for all things ‘impact’ and a hugely effective platform for sharing ideas. Take one of their latest posts for example – an excellent analysis by Jane Tinkler that reveals although central government funding for research councils has fallen over the last five years, output productivity of funded researchers has actually increased by 16 per cent since 2008/9.

Their lead research project has culminated in the publication of a new book The Impact of Social Sciences: How Academics and Their Research Make a Difference. The headline finding is that social science contributes £2.7 billion in direct value to the UK economy. If indirect effects are taken into account, the figure hits £4.8 billion. In an effort to persuade policymakers to reassess the weighting of funding for STEM subjects (85 per cent of all research grants go to STEM, reports Times Higher Education), the LSE researchers argue that the growth of the UK service sector will increasingly rely on “our ability to understand our complex societies and economies.”

I attended a panel debate at the LSE to mark the publication of the research and it proved a lively session. Setting the scene, Ziyad Marar, Global Publishing Director for SAGE, observed the big challenge facing social scientists. “Social science is up against it when trying to get its point across. It’s often misconstrued and regarded as having a lesser impact.”

Lord Stern, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and Environment, was on the panel. He pointed out the uptake of research by policymakers varies wildly from government department to department, praising the Department for Work and Pensions as regarding evidence as “very important in the role of decision making”, while singling out the Home Office for using “almost no evidence in its decision-making”. Sniggers followed that line.

That point was later backed up by a comment from Aileen Murphie of the National Audit Office, who said dryly: “We need evidence-based policymaking but what we generally have is policy in search of evidence.”

Linking back to Mirar’s opening gambit about social sciences being misrepresented, the entertaining Mark Easton, the BBC’s Home Editor, pretty much summed up the problem behind the relationship between academia and the media.

He said: “Journalists like simple stories that chime with audiences’ prejudices. When looking at social science research I often find myself drowning in a sea of imponderables and caveats.”

He went on to admit: “It’s always difficult to push stories up the news agenda that reach a nuanced conclusion. We need evidence-based analysis not through the prism of contemporary politics, not through the prism of accepted wisdom, but through open-mindedness.”

He talked of what he regards as a “golden age for society” – an era of big data, increased transparency and less public tolerance for abuses of power. But to seize the opportunities presented by this golden age, he advised: “Social science academics must ask the right questions in a way that non academic audiences can understand in order to produce an informed national conversation.”