Social scientists who wish to drive policy should ‘think big’

Senior sector figures urge new cohort to engage, draw on large datasets, collaborate with science and tackle the era’s major questions. Plus the latest higher education appointments

February 26, 2015

Source: Getty

Model student: aspiring social scientists must avoid ‘miniaturism’ holding back the application of research to policy

How should academics developing a social sciences career seek to make an “impact” on policymaking? And in what areas should they be researching?

Those are two of the questions thrown up by a new report from the Campaign for Social Science, The Business of People: The Significance of Social Science over the Next Decade, and by a recently published book on the value of the social sciences.

James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex and chair of the Campaign for Social Science, argues that developments such as the impact agenda mean that “the climate for engaging in policy as an early or mid-career academic has certainly changed”.

He said he is “excited by the dynamism with which social scientists are now engaging in a much more public way, through blogging, Twitter, involvement in policy working groups and so on. It is encouraging to see that sort of activity increasingly recognised and rewarded.”

Professor Wilsdon urged aspiring social scientists to embrace a wide range of methods, and particularly the new “ability to tap into bigger, real-time, more complex datasets” as a way of avoiding the “miniaturism” that he said has often “held back the application of research to policy”.

He also sees the value of looking at impact “from both the supply and the demand side”, with researchers thinking not only about how to get their messages across, but also about the challenges policymakers face.

Sir Cary Cooper, distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University’s management school, is chair of the Academy of Social Sciences – and co-editor (with Jonathan Michie) of a new book, Why the Social Sciences Matter.

“What areas should a Young Turk in the social sciences be going into? Take the big problems of our time – the ageing workforce, health and well-being, how we create liveable cities, how we become creative and innovative in our businesses – and do work on them, usually with our scientific colleagues,” Sir Cary said.

Even within these crucial areas, in his view, researchers hoping to “make a contribution to our society” should ask big questions – and, if necessary, spin out small strands of the data for articles in major journals. Unlike earlier generations of academics, Sir Cary believes, they should not be shy about putting forward practical suggestions that arise out of their research – and that can then be tested scientifically to see if they work.

For Mike Hulme, professor of climate and culture at King’s College London, social science needs to “keep on doing” what it is best at, namely “offering complex answers to simple questions, rather than simple answers to complex questions”.

A natural scientist may address climate change in terms of “preventing cumulative emissions of CO2 exceeding 1 trillion tonnes”, he said. But a social scientist, by contrast, will stress “negotiating different notions of justice, energy rights, investments in innovation, political regulation, public perceptions of new technologies, religious worldviews, the ethics of free trade, the value of the unborn, etc”, Professor Hulme continued.

In areas such as food security, immigration and social medicine, he already sees greater willingness for government to take such approaches on board. It is by remaining true to such core principles, Professor Hulme argued, that aspiring social scientists can best prove their value.


Geoffrey Wood, currently professor of international business at the University of Warwick, has been appointed dean of the University of Essex’s business school. Professor Wood joins the university on 1 April.

David Carless has given his inaugural lecture as professor of narrative psychology at Leeds Beckett University.

Dorothy Newbury-Birch has joined Teesside University as professor of alcohol and public health research.

The University of Lincoln has appointed Paul Stephenson as head of the School of History and Heritage. Professor Stephenson joins Lincoln from Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

The University of St Mark and St John has announced four new senior appointments. Elizabeth Smith has joined as executive dean of student experience; Brendon Noble becomes executive dean of research, postgraduate and innovation; and Xosé Rosales Sequeiros and Andrew Edwards have been named dean of the faculty of culture and language sciences, and dean of sport and health sciences, respectively.

Hindy Najman, professor of religious studies, Judaic studies, Classics and divinity at Yale University, has been appointed to the Oriel and Laing professorship of the interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford.

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