Beyond the Tweed: where social scientists can raise their voices

December 24, 1999

Huw Richards reports on a commission to gauge the strength and usefulness of British social science.

David Rhind is ironically self-deprecating about one of his academic claims to fame: "I am the world's leading expert on changes in the Tweed Valley over the past 15,000 years, but that's only because no one else is interested."

But Rhind, vice-chancellor of City University, knows his next major project will be of interest far beyond his native Berwick-on-Tweed. He has taken the chair of the Commission on the Social Sciences, the first major project of the new Academy of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences.

The academy was launched last month with a lunch in the City of London, at which 65 charter academicians were invited to sign a membership book, which it is hoped will in time acquire the venerable status of the Royal Society's membership roll. The academy has forgone chains and robes of office.

It grew out of the Association of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences, created in 1982 as an umbrella body for groups such as the Political Studies Association and the British Sociological Association, following the threat to the social sciences in the then education secretary Keith Joseph's swingeing cuts to the budget of the Social Science Research Council. Started with 16 groups, ALSISS now has 41 affiliates with a total membership of more than 50,000.

Those numbers show that, whatever Margaret Thatcher may have thought about the concept of society, Conservative governments did not destroy the study of it. And the change of government in 1997 created a more promising environment. The social affairs journalist Polly Toynbee, one of a group of charter academicians whose election reflects a determination to include non-academics, says: "Labour is strongly in favour of evidence-based policy-making, in theory at least. They have been determined that schemes such as the New Deal should be scientifically monitored, with every possible statistic collected as a basis for policy-making."

The 1980s undermined the collective confidence of social scientists even more than they did the rest of academic life, creating an uncomfortable awareness that there was no one to speak for them as the Royal Society speaks for scientists. While the British Academy includes social scientists, it is dominated by the humanities and its exclusive academic base excludes practice-based social sciences such as social work and business studies.

The academy idea, first hatched three years ago, took a while to capture the imagination of social scientists. On launch day academy officials were left wondering whether, in one respect, it had caught on too well. A BBC radio item was dropped when researchers were unable to find a prominent social scientist willing to rubbish the idea, the subject deemed insufficiently controversial.

There are still important absentees. The Royal Economic Society, which pulled out of ALSISS in the mid-1990s, chose not to join the academy or to nominate academicians, although a number of economists such as Andrew Dilnot of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and LSE professors Meghnad Desai and Christine Whitehead were elected. Tony Atkinson, warden of Nuffield College and a past president of the RES, said he welcomed anything aimed at raising the status of British social science, but would have preferred a more European-oriented body.

Nigel Gilbert, professor of sociology at Surrey University and chair of the academy implementation group, says: "We are hopeful that the RES will join us, although this may take some time."

The new body has a dual membership, with the learned societies affiliating corporately - ALSISS and its functions will be subsumed in the academy - while individual academicians (AcSS) are elected. The criterion for choice is that they should "have achieved international academic recognition or have undertaken distinguished service in putting social science into practice".

The charter membership will grow over the next three or four years from 65 to about 500, each paying an annual subscription of around Pounds 180. Ian Forbes, chair of ALSISS, is confident expansion will not devalue the honour: "A membership of about 500 is proportionately a little less than similar bodies."

Two practising solicitors have been elected and three journalists - Toynbee, Beatrix Campbell and Observer editor-in-chief Will Hutton - along with five current vice-chancellors with social science backgrounds and luminaries such as Michael Young, the doyen of British sociology. Toynbee hopes this will "make academics less ivory-towered and policy-makers more aware of academic research".

The founders know it will take time for the academy to acquire credibility and influence. Gilbert says: "We need to develop slowly and steadily - trying to rush would be unwise. The Royal Society has been around for more than 300 years, while the Royal Academy of Engineering, which we see as a role model, took 20 years to reach its current position."

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