Social science is this year's theme for parks

January 17, 2013

Universities will this year start to build “social science parks” as a route to improving public services, according to a prediction published by Nesta, the foundation for innovation.

Contributing to an online article, “13 predictions for 2013”, Adam Price, Nesta’s public innovation lead, Wales, and a former MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, said that just as high-tech science parks are used to commercialise university research, clusters of practice-based research institutes will soon spring up to help public services function better and more cost-effectively.

Two-way feedback between practice and research is an idea that already takes place in university teaching hospitals. But Mr Price believes this could be applied to more services such as teaching and policing, using funding from universities, government department research budgets and private collaborators.

“One thing we’ve learned from science parks is that an ingredient of success…is the critical mass of people physically located in the same space, when people across sectors have a serendipitous conversation that leads to innovation,” he told Times Higher Education.

According to Jonathan Shepherd, professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at Cardiff University and creator of the collaborative Universities’ Police Science Institute in Cardiff, this need not mean moving public services but creating associations between existing services in local areas.

Universities could use links to practice to improve graduate employability, while evidence produced through the “parks” could be scaled up and delivered at a national level, he said.

“I think we’re missing a trick by not currently making the most of opportunities to impact policy and practice in some of these areas,” he added.

A lack of funding prevented the London School of Economics from following up a proposal to create a social science park in the 1990s, Mr Price said. But other institutions are starting to follow suit, such as the University of Birmingham with its free school linked to the institution’s School of Education.

Appetite for social science parks is gathering momentum, not least because of the efficiencies demanded by austerity measures, Mr Price added. “Social science parks could have a key role in producing the kind of innovative programmes the public service is crying out for,” he said. “It’s up for grabs to be the first university to do it, as Stanford did with the science park in the 1940s.”

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