Europe, know thyself: social science solutions to the biggest problems

Demand is growing for the discipline's insights, but what does it need to meet it? Roderick Floud calls for tools to finish the job

April 15, 2010

Social scientists have argued for years that they can help society understand itself and solve its problems. Now others seem to agree.

Politicians scrap about the meaning of statistics on schooling or crime. The European Commission asks social science to contribute to answering the grand challenges of our time: an eco-efficient society; global warming; security; ageing societies; public health; pandemics; and dwindling supplies of energy, food and water. Even physical scientists and engineers have been persuaded by the evidence of climate change that if human behaviour has caused the problem, then understanding and changing it needs to be part of the solution.

Now that the demand is there, is European social science ready to meet it? The authors of Vital Questions: The Contribution of European Social Science, a report launched this week by the European Science Foundation (ESF), partly answer this question. From the measurement of inequality (Sir Tony Atkinson) to the social aspects of climate change (Frans Berkhout) and the impact of innovation (Bengt-Ake Lundvall), more than a dozen of Europe's leading social scientists show how important their work is to the future of Europe and solutions to its current problems. Judging by these brief surveys, social science in Europe is thriving, productive and relevant.

More problematic is comparing it to its counterparts in the US, China and other parts of the world. One difficulty is knowing how to measure it. We do not know with any precision how many social scientists there are, even in universities, partly because they are rarely separated from scholars in the humanities. Social science research in many parts of the private sector is not even measured, and current bibliometric tools do not take account of the publication of books and government reports. We urgently need to develop better tools to give credit to the wealth of research in the discipline.

Even with the limited information that now exists, European social science does well. Based on current estimates, there are at least 150,000 researchers in humanities and social science in Europe, teaching more than 7 million students. In 2007, they published more than 45,000 articles, according to Thomson Reuters' ISI Web of Knowledge database. The US, with perhaps 110,000 researchers, produced just over 40,000.

If, as is often alleged, the database is biased towards anglophone and US journals, Europe is doing very well indeed, with particularly creditable performances from the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. But we must have better indicators.

There are other signs of success. The brain drain to the US is itself an indicator of the quality of European training and research. The European Social Survey leads the world, while the strength of such areas as longitudinal analysis and the science of the brain are evident. Social theory, allied to philosophy, has long been a European strength, as has historical analysis - both evidence of the closeness between social science and the humanities that contrasts with these fields in the US.

If there are great strengths, there are also weaknesses. Traditionally, doctoral training has, in all fields, been less well organised in Europe than in the US. The Bologna Process has brought improvements, but Europe is still not producing enough social scientists trained in statistics and quantitative methods.

Too many social scientists - particularly in the UK - relate much more closely to their American colleagues than to those in other European countries. Europe, with its immense cultural heritage and diversity, should be a perfect laboratory for the social sciences, which thrive on variation. Yet, despite funding from the European Union and the ESF, far too little comparative research is being done.

To fulfil their potential, social scientists need tools: access to data, both administrative and commercial; support for networks of scholars; mechanisms to develop links with academics in other fields; adequate funding to develop the next generation; surveys and other instruments to measure our societies and economies. Social scientists in the ESF are working to set out what is needed and how governments can help.

Politicians need answers, even if they do not always like what they hear. Social scientists are uniquely positioned to rise to this demand by engaging with the crucial questions of our times. Above all, for the research of thousands of scholars to make its proper impact, they need to sell themselves and their work. This is neither vulgar nor pandering to requests for measures of impact: it is essential.

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