Dearth of new blood will stifle research

January 27, 2006

Urgent action is required to avert a crisis in the UK's social sciences, according to a major report that reveals for the first time the full extent of staffing problems in the field.

The report, due to be published next month by the Economic and Social Research Council, says that research across the social sciences will suffer at the hands of an ageing and poorly qualified research community unless constructive measures are taken by the council.

Many senior social scientists entered academe in the Sixties and Seventies and are due to retire soon, the Demographic Review of the Social Sciences report says.

But difficulties in recruiting and retaining academics in a number of social science disciplines will make it hard to replace those approaching retirement.

In addition to concerns over numbers, there are also worries about the level of research skills of social scientists.

Many staff in practice-based disciplines, such as education and business studies, were recruited straight from the workplace and lack the quantitative skills learnt while doing a PhD.

There is particular lack of statisticians across all the social sciences.

This, according to the report, is due in part to a decline in numbers of young people studying maths in the sixth form.

Ian Diamond, chief executive of the ESRC, said: "Today, social science is accepted as a major part of the science base and is recognised for the contribution it makes to the life of this country. However, it is also true that we need to take action in a number of areas to maintain the health of the research base.

"We need to do this by working in partnership with institutions and the Government to ensure that the social sciences are attractive to the very best students."

Areas earmarked for reform include bolstering the long-term research strategy with more studentships and higher stipends for disciplines such as economics.

"Over the next few weeks and months we will increase interventions to make degrees and fellowships more attractive. This is an exciting collaboration between the ESRC and the Higher Education Funding Council for England and other sister research councils," Professor Diamond said.

Sharon Witherspoon, deputy director of The Nuffield Foundation, said:

"People have been talking about the state of the social sciences for years and it's all credit to the ESRC that someone has, at last, pulled the evidence together. We now have a sense of the scale of the problem and can do something about it."

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