New Academy report highlights the importance of social science to UK research and innovation

A new report by the Academy of Social Sciences has emphasised the vitally important, yet often poorly-understood, role of the social sciences to the UK’s current research, development and innovation system.

While the UK’s talent pool has significant strengths in the social sciences, current UK Government initiatives have placed a strong priority on new technologies and STEM related research and innovation.

Published today, ‘Reimagining the recipe for research and innovation: the secret sauce of social science’, sets out four distinct ingredients the social sciences contribute to enable world-leading and future-focused UK research, including on new and emerging technology. Using an array of examples and informed by analysis of data from the Digital Science ‘Dimensions’ database, the report’s findings demonstrate a symbiotic relationship between social science and STEM research, with collaborative work across both spheres often being more useful to policymakers.

The report presents four themes that the social sciences contribute to the UK’s research and innovation system which are summarised as:

  1. Social sciences enable whole-systems thinking, allowing innovators and entrepreneurs to understand system capabilities, vital system contexts and dynamics – including economies, productivity, institutions, skills, training and cultures – as well as helping to understand and improve the research and innovation system itself.
  2. Social sciences are critical for good policy development. They play a prominent role in informing and developing evidence-based policy.
  3. Social sciences underpin smart and responsible innovation. Emerging technologies depend upon social sciences for the legal, regulatory and ethical frameworks that are essential for their efficacy and adoption within a UK context.
  4. Social sciences are essential to international collaboration and tackling shared global challenges. The UK’s international research and innovation strategy is outwardly focused and benefits from being underpinned by the social sciences including business and management, politics, geography and international development. The UK’s social scientists also have a track record of working effectively with partners and providing a substantive focus for UK strengths and strategic advantage in relation to the sustainable development goals and other global challenges.

Professor James Wilsdon FAcSS, Director of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI) at University College London, and lead author of the report, said, “The insights and expertise of social scientists add flavour, depth and richness across the UK’s research and innovation system. Through their own work, and through collaboration with scientists, technologists and engineers, social scientists contribute in numerous ways to tackling economic, social and environmental priorities. But in recent years, there’s been a narrowing of focus in UK Government policy to Science & Technology, and less of the holistic, systems thinking that captures and values such connections and interdependencies. This needs to change: it’s time to restore the social sciences to their rightful place in the way we structure, plan and invest for a high-performing, transdisciplinary research and innovation system, capable of meeting the acute challenges of the next 20 years.”

Dr Rita Gardner, Chief Executive of the Academy of Social Sciences, said, “This report highlights how multidisciplinary research brings the strength of the social sciences to bear. It explores this with reference to some key foci of current UK Government research and innovation that tend to be regarded as primarily relating to STEM. Therefore, we strongly encourage policy initiatives that better facilitate and reward research projects and partnerships that cross STEM and social science disciplinary boundaries.”

‘Reimagining the recipe for research and innovation: the secret sauce of social science’ is a joint publication between the Academy’s Campaign for Social Science and Sage Publications. Analysis was provided by Digital Science using data from the ‘Dimensions’ database.

Download the full report