Leader: Social sciences need to find ways to share

March 28, 2003

Education secretary Charles Clarke suggested at a recent seminar that the prominence - perhaps even the existence - of think-tanks reflected badly on universities. Academics were not engaging sufficiently in the debates of the day, let alone organising them. This week's report by the Commission on the Social Sciences, while stressing that British research is second only to that in the US on all available measures, raises some of the same concerns. Many academics (not just in the social sciences) remain wary of the media and limit accounts of their research to journals and insider conferences.

Some of the reservations of this silent majority are well founded: newspapers and broadcasting organisations deal in certainties that often do not find room for the level of qualification that academics regard as key to an accurate representation of their work. Journalists probably will not be interested at all if the findings are too predictable. But social science, of all disciplines, must find ways of sharing its findings with the public if it is to justify taxpayer support. The commission has practical suggestions, such as increased media training and greater use of websites as a "shop window" for academic work. The problem will be solved, however, only when academics are convinced that wider dissemination of their work is a responsibility, rather than an optional extra.

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