How has social science underpinned your career?
As a social scientist, I’m more of a fox than a hedgehog. According to Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay, a fox knows many different things, but a hedgehog knows just one big thing. In my fox-like career, I have weaved in out of a range of different social science approaches: quant or qual, local or international, applied or pure.
For example, as director of the Alliance for Useful Evidence, I set up evidence intermediary bodies, such as the UK What Works Centres or the Evidence Quarter in Whitehall, that gather all sorts of research for use by decision-makers. My guiding philosophy is matching the method to the question: questions of ‘what works’ are best suited to experimental designs ; or qualitative research methods for questions of why and how.
Likewise, some subjects are more relevant to certain policy questions than others. If you have a spatial question, you need a geographer. I was head of policy at the Royal Geographical Society and strongly believe in the importance of place and space. This is highlighted by the current interest in ‘levelling up’, an area I’m working on as a policy advisor for the Government’s Open Innovation Team.
We can also learn a lot from a scholarship in history, philosophy, and language. I was the first-ever lead on policy for the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy and continue to try to grapple with those oft-neglected subjects.
In his ground-breaking book Expert Political Judgement, psychologist Philip Tetlock saw eclectic foxes as more accurate predictors of the future, compared to hedgehog experts who used one big idea. I’m not sure I’m any good at guessing the future. But I do predict that we are stronger social scientists if we embrace the diversity, and sometimes dissonance, of all our disciplines.