Social sciences: how to deliver on their potential

Former Nuffield Foundation director Sharon Witherspoon says the disciplines face many challenges

December 8, 2015
Source: iStock
How can the social sciences help us analyse the building blocks of our economy and society?

A leading research funder has explored both “the strengths of contemporary UK social science” and how the community can “achieve all that it is capable of”.

Sharon Witherspoon – formerly director of the Nuffield Foundation – was delivering the Campaign for Social Science Annual SAGE Lecture, titled “Social science for public good: who benefits, who pays?” on 7 December.

Though she pointed to major achievements in terms of international citations and the infrastructure for longitudinal and “big data” research, she saw “little room for complacency”.

Read more: World University Rankings 2015-2016 results by subject - social sciences

She was worried, for example, about the impact of data-protection legislation; areas such as child development where “we simply have far less empirical research than I would argue we objectively need”; and possible changes to the research excellence framework leading to a “system in which only journal articles [are] incentivised”.

One study, Ms Witherspoon pointed out, indicated that postgraduates were least satisfied with “the amount of time they were called on to spend in quantitative methods training”. Yet when the same students were re-interviewed a couple of years later, “their views had virtually reversed and a large number regretted that they had not done more work in this area”. If we want social scientists to develop stronger quantitative skills, she said, plans to incorporate student satisfaction measures into the teaching excellence framework present real dangers.

When it came to funding for social science research, Ms Witherspoon presented data showing that income “provided by research councils and UK government (who provide the lion’s share of funding) reached its high point in 2008-09”, had declined in real terms by 25 per cent by 2012-13 and was probably lower still today.

She also pointed to “a shortfall in the number of charities who support social science research” and reflected that “there are too few funders of this kind of research”, given “the benefit of having pluralism in funding sources, and competition between funders to drive up the quality of research”.

“The sign of a social science community… delivering on all its potential,” Ms Witherspoon concluded, “would be new funders… called into being at the sight of all the ways that robust social science can give rise to public benefit. We should have the audacity to make that our aim.”

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