Good social science research lies at the heart of good public policy. Social science research can define and diagnose the major challenges facing society, identify the policy levers to address them, and help inform interventions to implement change. Drawing on a wealth of evidence from across disciplines, social scientists are key to changing people’s lives by boosting economic productivity, embracing and embedding EDI, adopting and safely managing new technologies, and developing training that fulfils society’s needs. Social science graduates are also integral to the economy, especially in the fastest-growing sectors such as information and communication and financial, legal and professional services1.
Within this context, ensuring a thriving social science research community feeding into policy and practice is vital to the UK’s future. With continued uncertainty over the UK’s future relationship with EU funding programmes, the Academy of Social Sciences is calling for sustained association with Horizon Europe. Furthermore, we have also set out a series of interventions which we believe would allow the social sciences to contribute more fully to government priorities for the national benefit.
The UK’s research and development landscape remains a challenging one across all disciplines. Between 2020/21 and 2021/22, UK Government spending on R&D fell by £803 million – a drop of around 5.3%2. This was largely thanks to the ending of UK Government contributions to the European research programme Horizon – but even excluding those contributions from the data, spending stagnated, remaining unchanged from £14bn in 2020-21.
For the social sciences specifically, funding challenges remain acute. Our 2022 report3 identified significant concern over the social sciences’ future access to funding amidst uncertainty over the UK’s association to Horizon Europe, in which the UK’s social sciences have fared well due to their strength and impact. The EU Horizon programme for 2021-2027 has a budget of €95bn and a strong commitment to social science – and whilst the UK Government’s ‘Pioneer’ prospectus4 acknowledges the importance of the social sciences (for example crediting social scientists with driving take-up of the COVID vaccine), it lacks both the detail and the scale of Horizon’s ambition.
The Academy of Social Sciences remains of the view that full association to Horizon Europe is in the best interests of our social sciences in order that the sector can:
- Continue to thrive and lead in terms of international research standing;
- Sustain the high levels of excellence in research and impact as evidenced in REF 2021;
- Build and support pressing new research agendas to deliver on its responsibilities for society, economy, people and the environment.
The decisions over research funding will dictate whether the UK can retain a world-leading reputation in social science research and apply that research to the challenges facing the UK and the world.
Amidst the uncertainty over Horizon Association, there are some ‘quick wins’ which the Academy of Social Sciences would urge the UK Government to consider – all of which would help significantly to improve the landscape for social science research:
- R&D tax relief: The UK does not currently allow social science-based research to qualify for R&D tax relief, with only traditional science and technology activities eligible. This is at odds with the situation in many competitor countries which allow social science-based R&D within their tax relief mechanisms, including: Austria, Belgium, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, Korea, Mexico, Norway, Portugal, Russia, and Spain. We have set out previously5 examples of social science research for which the UK might wish to provide incentives, including uses of social science carried out in conjunction with STEM science, or in STEM-based businesses.
- UK Government evaluation budget: In the last two years, reports from both the National Audit Office6 and the Public Accounts Committee7 have criticised the UK Government’s lack of robust external evaluation of its policy programme. Both reports also pointed to a lack of transparent data on evaluation spending within government. Publishing figures on the UK Government’s evaluation budget, and seeking to boost it to address the shortcomings identified in both reports, would allow the social sciences to draw on the sector’s evaluation expertise to help government build its base of evidence-based policy.
- Building a social science framework: We welcome the recent publication of the UK Government’s Science & Technology Framework8, which set out the ways in which science and technology are crucial to UK growth and prosperity and was accompanied by a package of measures valued at £370m. The Framework is by its nature very STEM-heavy, but is an important document which also sets out a welcome vision for increased private sector investment in R&D. We would urge this to be a catalyst for the development of a similar framework setting out the ways in which social sciences can play their part in tackling pressing societal challenges, such as reaching Net Zero, tackling the cost of living crisis and levelling up the whole of the UK.
- Future capacity: To help foster a strong and diverse pipeline of social scientists and build capacity in the sector, the Academy of Social Sciences will be building further our own partnerships and work in the years ahead, and celebrating the successes and role models within the social sciences. To support this, we want governments across the UK to facilitate and promote high-quality employability and careers information to the next generation of social scientists and to recognise how social science skills are growing in importance.
- The UK should maintain full association to Horizon Europe as a priority.
- If the above is not possible, then it is vital that social science research is fully recognised and supported in any UK replacement for EU funding and in future UKRI strategic funding and multi-disciplinary cross-Council programmes.
- Social science-based R&D should be included within R&D tax relief at the earliest possible opportunity.
- The UK Government should restore its policy evaluation budget to 2010 levels and implement.
- The Department of Science, Innovation & Technology should build on its recent Science & Technology Framework by developing an equivalent package for the social sciences in order to reap the full benefits they offer.
1 British Academy (2023) SHAPE Skills at Work: case studies from graduates of the social sciences, humanities and arts, London: British Academy.
2 Magee, R. (2023) “UK Government R&D spending dropped by £803m in 2021-22”, Research Professional website (accessed 31 March 2023).
3 Gardner, R., McEnery, A., Vernon, D., Witherspoon, S. & Burchell, K. (2022) Social Sciences in a Time of Change, 2020-2022, London: Academy of Social Sciences / Lancaster University.
4 UK Government (2023) Pioneer: Global Science for Global Good: a UK prospectus for opportunities beyond Horizon Europe, London: UK Government.
5 Academy of Social Sciences (2021) R&D Tax Reliefs consultation: AcSS response, London: Academy of Social Sciences.
6 National Audit Office (2021) Evaluating UK Government Spending, London: NAO.
7 Public Accounts Committee (2022) Use of Evaluation and Modelling in Government: fourth report of session 2022–23, Westminster: House of Commons.
8 Department of Science, Innovation & Technology (2023) Science & Technology Framework: taking a systems approach to UK science and technology, London: UK Government.