Social science is rising to the challenges of the impact agenda

Social scientists are innovating to ensure their research is relevant, but more must be done, says Rick Delbridge

September 21, 2017
Stop Ebola sign written on wall
Source: Getty

The increased emphasis on interdisciplinary research and the need to apply it to societal challenges has opened up space for social scientists to contribute to the great challenges of our age.

This very point was made by Sir Mark Walport, chief executive designate at UK Research and Innovation, in the pages of Times Higher Education as he explained the role that anthropologists had played, alongside medical science, in tackling the Ebola virus. Nevertheless, it is not always clear whether actual practice – be it that of researchers, research funders, policymakers or university managers – has changed enough to deliver interdisciplinary and impactful research.

Adopting a “business-as-usual” approach will certainly not realise the opportunities and aspirations of major contemporary research initiatives, such as the Global Challenges Research Fund or the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. While social scientists have been keen to emphasise the role that they should play in addressing societal issues, such as population growth, migration, poverty and security, this will not be achieved if social science does not mobilise and organise itself.

Fortunately, there are clear signs that this is happening. One example is that of the Campaign for Social Sciences, which aims to raise the profile of social science. The campaign has a lobbying role and has made numerous policy interventions, but it has also produced reports highlighting the importance of social science, including the impact of social science research in its Making the Case series of publications. Such community-building is vital as social scientists come together – both with each other, with different disciplines and with a range of external actors – to develop the collaborative relationships that are central to delivering truly interdisciplinary research and societal benefits.

Individual universities are also leading the way in adopting innovative approaches to supporting interdisciplinary research. At Cardiff University, the creation of a social science research park (SPARK) will bring together applied social science and interdisciplinary research groupings and co-locate these with research partners from the public, private and third sectors in order to facilitate the co-creation of new knowledge and impact. The University of Sheffield recently announced a similar initiative: a new translational research centre for social science. This major investment in interdisciplinary facilities will pioneer better ways of working together.

University initiatives supporting new ways of collaborating are important. However, a further challenge and opportunity lies in mobilising across multiple institutions and building international networks that collectively act to promote and support the impact of research. This is the focus of a two-day international conference on how social sciences and humanities research can address societal challenges for the benefit of all, which is happening at Cardiff University this week.   

The key recommendations to be discussed include the promotion of societal challenges as the catalyst for high-quality, impact-focused research programmes and the creation of consortia with practice and across disciplines in the earliest phase of research planning.

There is the need for innovative and entrepreneurial behaviour among the various different groups if such an agenda is to be delivered. To these ends, the hope is that the Cardiff event marks the beginning of a new network that will work together on how the impact of social science research can be supported and extended.

Such a “movement” of like-minded and committed social science and humanities researchers can help to ensure that their various disciplines and communities are able to adapt and develop in order to meet the challenges of delivering impactful interdisciplinary research, thus ensuring these communities are well placed to contribute to future collaborations.

Rick Delbridge is Cardiff University’s dean of research, innovation and enterprise and a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s Research Excellence Framework Interdisciplinary Research Advisory Panel. He was a speaker at an event taking place at Cardiff University, from 20 to 21 September, which was co-organised by Hefce and the Network for Advancing and Evaluating the Societal Impact of Science.

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