Social science failing its users, report says

March 28, 2003

An independent review of the state of social sciences in Britain has concluded that while the volume and quality of research is second only to the US, much of the work of economists, sociologists and geographers fails to meet "real-world" needs.

The Commission on the Social Sciences, chaired by City University vice-chancellor David Rhind, reported this week that government ministers and civil servants were "scathing" about some of the work they received from academics.

The report says: "This is claimed all too often to speak naively of policy issues, demonstrates little or no awareness of current policy, is over-technical and sometimes needs drastic editing to make it more readable to key players."

Education secretary Charles Clarke told The THES : "Too often research and researchers seem to have little to offer on some of the key challenges we face in public policy. Important evidence is often difficult to assess and apply because insufficient thought has been given to the process of dissemination and information flows."

The commission's report placed much of the blame on mismatched mindsets.

The "users" of social science research tended to devise broad-ranging questions. This jarred with the specific subject-oriented approach taken by many academics in a broad discipline that includes politics, international affairs, social policy, psychology, anthropology and law.

"Typically, research questions as defined by those outside academia are cross-cutting; rarely can any one discipline or practitioner address it successfully, putting social scientists at a real disadvantage in meeting real-world needs," the report says.

At the same time, the caution of some academics towards close engagement with the users of social science research was disappointing, the commission said.

While Britain had produced academics whose ideas shaped global thinking, the commission found that too few new ideas were being generated because of the treadmill of teaching, administration and research assessment work.

"Some research as a consequence is pedestrian or incremental; some is duplicative; a substantial fraction of it is carried out at weekends and holidays," the report says.

The "cottage-industry" style of almost all social science research is identified as a serious problem attributed to entrenched mindsets and historical ways of working. The report singles out research in business and management studies as the "greatest concern" because evidence reveals that it is, on average, well below the standard of other research.

The commission recommends moves to join up research by encouraging subject bodies to plan joint contributions to government research tenders. Radical changes to staff contracts are also called for, echoing the US "nine-month contract" model that frees up time for research.

The report notes the popularity of social sciences teaching. About half a million students study social sciences in universities that receive about £2.8 billion a year for the discipline, 20 per cent of which goes to research.

The commission found official measures ranked most degree-level teaching to be high quality and that graduate employment levels were average or above average.

While some universities are massively oversubscribed, there are considerable institutional and regional variations. Student numbers were greater in the more applied subjects linked to education and business, while applicants for statistics had declined.

The numbers of students gaining masters degrees and PhDs have expanded greatly in recent years both for home and non-UK students, according to the report.

"Social sciences now inform and underpin a large measure of public policy-making," the report says. "Various government departments have accepted that the social sciences - or at least some social scientists - can bring important insights and evidence to bear on intractable social and economic challenges; this has been manifested in above-average increases for research funding of the social sciences."

Funding for the Economic and Social Research Council will rise to nearly £120 million a year by 2005-06. Spending on science and research will have risen to £1.25 billion a year by then.

However, the commission was struck by how little was known about the work of social scientists in the wider world. "This represents a waste of public resource and a loss of potential societal contribution from many committed individuals and teams... There is a great need to market social sciences more effectively; the lack of awareness is widespread and influences what we get asked to do and what impact we have."

Ian Diamond, chief executive of the ESRC, said the report showed the high quality and breadth of social sciences in the UK. "We are especially pleased that the commission agrees with us that the UK needs more highly trained social scientists, with knowledge especially of quantitative methods. We are working to build these skills and those of qualitative methods among the scientists we support."

Professor Diamond agreed with the commission's call for the most talented researchers to be freed to concentrate on research and said the ESRC was working to strengthen research in business and management.

Great Expectations: The Social Sciences in Britain ,

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