Broaden your mind, Mr Brown

June 28, 2002

Social sciences and humanities have a key role to play in our economic future, argues Bob Bennett

Science and technology often grab the headlines as well as political attention. But the contributions made by social sciences and humanities to developing a knowledge-based economy are arguably as great as those of the sciences. Moreover, the support costs are often lower, making for an efficient investment.

But the economic benefits are only part of the picture. The social sciences and humanities also contribute most crucially to the formation of well-informed, culturally aware, critical minds. Events since September 11 show how important it is not only to understand different national and religious cultures, but also to use that understanding effectively.

The government appears to have recognised the importance of research and higher education to the knowledge-based economy. But supporting top-quality higher education is not merely or mainly a matter of meeting targets for higher participation. It is about recognising the need to develop the wider essence of a civilised, liberal and enlightened society.

Higher education has been under-resourced for too long. But the government seems unwilling to provide adequate resources itself or to allow universities to raise additional fee income. As a result, the system as a whole is under considerable strain, and some areas are in crisis.

The sector was in deficit in 2000-01 and 2001-02, and university libraries, laboratories and other facilities are in bad shape. Morale within the sector is frequently low. It is in this context that the government is seeking to further expand higher education. But more expansion is unworkable unless the resources are available. Otherwise the drive to increase access will merely lead to more erosion of teaching and research standards.

In the humanities and social sciences, the British Academy has been concerned that the number and quality of postgraduate research students is declining and the recruitment of academics and other researchers is becoming more difficult. Similar problems have been recognised in a recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Gareth Roberts report on science and engineering. All subjects are struggling to recruit high-calibre students and staff.

The British Academy believes that a systemic problem can be overcome only with systemic reforms of postgraduate and early career academic structures. There are many disincentives to undertake a PhD or remain in research. These disincentives are primarily financial, but there are also many rigidities that undermine wider participation. The academy believes that it is most urgent to increase stipends, the number of PhD awards and postdoctoral fellowships, improve academic pay and enhance salary progression.

Chancellor Gordon Brown's indication in his speech in Blackpool on June 10 that the comprehensive spending review will do more to develop UK science, including the recruitment of postgraduate researchers in key shortage areas within sciences, is, therefore, welcome. But it is worrying that, as in previous statements, he did not mention the humanities and social sciences.

How can this omission be interpreted? Is it a warning? It seems that, once again, the government is missing the point. The contributions made by research are complementary across the sciences, technology, social sciences and humanities. The success of the UK's knowledge-based economy is not based exclusively on scientific aspects of innovation, nor linear models of scientific development but the interplay of all aspects of knowledge. Governments that try to second guess what knowledge is most "useful" invariably guess wrong.

It is time the government developed a more coherent and broader research vision. This should include the humanities and social sciences at the beginning, not at the end, of the thought process. Why try to pick winners in one area rather than in another? The follies of 1960s state planning should be adequate warning of the dangers of this approach.

Bob Bennett is chairman of the research committee at the British Academy and a professor of geography at Cambridge University.

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