The self-confidence crisis in social research

While scientists are easily able to demonstrate the impact of their work, the social sciences are often on the back foot when it comes to highlighting the value of research, says Ziyad Marar

November 14, 2009

It was a sweet irony that in the month when US Senator Tom Coburn proposed to eliminate all funding of political science research from the National Science Foundation, claiming that “theories on political behaviour are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties and the voters”, one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was a political scientist (Elinor Ostrom), much of whose work was funded by the very grants Coburn seeks to ban.

With the research excellence framework about to replace the research assessment exercise, the media are hooked on the question of how to prove the value of academic research, and social science research in particular. An entertaining example is the call to put comedian David Mitchell on research council boards following his recent article on the value of “useless research”. We can assume that this debate will only intensify as we enter an election year, with inevitable calls from all sides for efficiency, relevance and value.

The social sciences are typically on the back foot when it comes to such debates. Scientists can more easily point to advances that drive technology and jobs, with the support of institutions such as the Royal Society to broadcast their achievements. Times Higher Education recently reported on concerns that “narcissistic” research is leading to “the suicide of the social sciences” and that humanities might offer a better way to tackle big questions. It is little wonder that, despite the efforts of the Economic and Social Research Council and the British Academy, one detects a lack of self-confidence.

A 2008 report by the British Academy, Punching our weight, demonstrated that links between policymakers and academics are not as close as they could and should be. Policymakers say they are often unaware of what research or expertise is available. But is this because researchers are not good at promoting what they do? Is it that the research being done is out of touch with the policy agenda? Or is the problem really that there is “low literacy” among civil servants for the interpretation of social research?

We need to make a frank assessment of the longer-term value of social research to assess its economic and cultural worth, along with its ability to influence public policy directly. A joint British Academy and SAGE workshop to be held next week, “Something to shout about”, aims to address exactly this, asking scholars, policymakers, the Government and the media exactly what the social sciences have to contribute to society.

Speaking at the event is Paul Wiles, chief scientific adviser to the Home Office. He has recently suggested that too much social research is overly technical, self-absorbed and trivial, contrasting the social researchers of today with the early doyens of the London School of Economics – Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Popper, Claus Moser – who took their roles as fearless public intellectuals seriously and had important things to say. On the other side of the equation, he recognises a severe skills shortage among policymakers in assessing, interpreting and using the fruits of social research.

Another participant, columnist Polly Toynbee, has bemoaned new Labour’s schizophrenic stance on the significance of social research. On the one hand there is talk of “evidence-based policy”, on the other the inability to “resist making populist gestures in defiance of all the research in front of it”. As she says, “policies on drugs, crime, prisons, faith schools and electoral reform are just a few of those issues where no amount of rock-solid research can shift the politicians’ determination to do the wrong thing regardless”.

Other speakers will explore this translation problem between policymakers and academics. Where has and hasn’t social research made its mark, and how can we improve evaluation of the evidence for policymakers? Currently about one third of government spending on such research goes to private consultancies, and only 10 per cent to research by the higher education sector. With funding under the spotlight, we will ask if government departments are allocating funding to the right groups, and look at the research priorities the country needs for the future.

One can have sympathy with the claim that social science is intrinsically difficult to justify in concrete terms without concluding that this is a reason to doubt its value. Indeed some of the work is inconclusive or trivial, and often inconvenient for governments bent on quicker, easier and more palatable messages. What David Mitchell seems better able to see than Senator Coburn is that the “impact” of social science is largely more diffuse, subtle and long term, if no less profound for that. While social scientists may take heed of the ways in which their research can better inform public debate and policy, they deserve a mature and nuanced assessment of the value of their work.

Ziyad Marar is deputy managing director and publishing director, SAGE Publications.

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