How to counter the ‘anti-research mood’: take an MP to lunch

Advising social scientists how to cope with tough times ahead, Lib Dem peer says make your case over a meal

March 21, 2010

Social scientists promoting the value of their research have been given some trenchant advice by a leading Liberal Democrat, who warned of a gathering “anti-research mood”.

Lord Newby, the Liberal Democrats’ Treasury spokesman, cautioned of a “grim atmosphere” for the social sciences as funding cuts begin to bite. He said the “Climategate” scandal at the University of East Anglia had given rise to an “anti-research mood”.

He was speaking last week at a debate organised by the British Academy and SAGE Publications, sponsored by Times Higher Education, at which social scientists fought their corner in the face of funding cuts.

Ian Diamond, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, said the social sciences “lie at the heart” of tackling the complex challenges facing society.

He said these challenges often require collaborative approaches because they are “too big for one brain”. British academics could claim world-class “excellence” in the field, he said, but he feared that a “grey and greying” workforce could affect the strength of the discipline in the long term.

On the issue of funding, Lord Newby said that protection afforded by the government to certain key areas, such as hospitals and schools, was bound to mean cuts of 15 to 20 per cent everywhere else.

He also said that it was unreasonable to expect policy always to be driven by research, arguing that no sensible politician would confront the deep public antipathy to alternatives to prison or the reclassification of drugs, whatever the evidence.

As well as warnings, the peer offered a number of suggestions about how social scientists could increase their influence.

With politicians drowning in paperwork, researchers need to acquire the old Civil Service skill of describing what they do succinctly, perhaps drawing on intermediaries to present their results, he said.

He also advised them to “strike early” after the forthcoming election, when there would be lots of impressionable new MPs.

“Work out which of them are likely to be interested and go and tell them about your research,” he advised. “Buy them food but not drink. They won’t have time to read your documents, but they should be willing to listen.”

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