Why we need arts, humanities and social science graduates
The British Academy has launched an important project to provide evidence for why arts, humanities, and social science (AHSS) graduates, and the skills they learn, are vital to the economy and cultural life in the UK and worldwide. The key questions posed are: what do we mean by ‘skills’ and what contribution do individuals with AHSS skills make? What skills do employers want? And what skills will be needed in the future? The Academy hopes to facilitate a national debate about the nature and value of these skills, showing not just the cultural value of arts, humanities and social sciences research and study, but crucially, their economic value in a rapidly changing world.
The Academy has produced an initial review of the evidence and launched a call for evidence with a deadline for contributions of 15 March. Sir Ian Diamond is leading the project which it is envisaged will report by the Autumn of this year.
Sir Mark Walport appointed chief executive of UKRI
Current government Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport, has been appointed as chief executive of the new umbrella body – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Sir Mark was responsible for instigating the ‘Nurse’ review of research councils that led to the establishment of the new body which he has also been closely involved in designing. UKRI will come into full operation in spring 2018 and it remains to be seen how far it is successful in delivering strategic and cross disciplinary research. Sir Mark’s appointment has not been universally welcomed and fears continue to be expressed about whether he is too close to government as well as the implications of new arrangements for the autonomy of individual research councils, including the ESRC.
Opportunities in the ‘post-truth’ era
A piece in a previous edition of this newsletter focused on the dangers posed by ‘the post-truth society’. Writing in The Guardian, Government Chief Statistician John Pullinger is far more positive and suggests the new era offers huge opportunities. He sees a key role for statisticians, and by implication social scientists, in working out and presenting what the truth is in a context where there is far more data available than ever before. The data revolution also provides opportunities to gain new insights, more quickly and in more fine-grained form. However, in order to achieve this he thinks the role of statisticians needs to change.
Industrial strategy - role of social science?
The Government’s industrial strategy, published earlier this week, is more interventionist in tone than previous incarnations and confirms a commitment to £4.7 billion of new funds for science and innovation. In a short blog responding to the strategy David Halpern, Head of the Behavioural Insights Team, notes that for too long economic policy has been based around unrealistic assumptions about human behaviour. He goes on to discuss the opportunities presented for building behavioural and social science thinking into economic policies concerned with, for example, improving management, raising productivity and boosting economic growth based on a better understanding of ‘what works’.
The British Academy and others have also welcomed the strategy and the commitment to additional R&D funding. In addition, as Lord Stern, President of the Academy has pointed out, it is important not to forget that the service sector contributes 80% of UKGDP and depends critically on skills gained from studying and researching social science and humanities subjects.
The Innovation Strategy is open for consultation until 17 April.
Does the big data era spell the death of statistics and social science?
In a recent piece for The Guardian William Davies discusses the background to the current antipathy to ‘experts’ and outlines some of the significant challenges facing statisticians and social scientists in the new age of big data. He sees a significant threat coming from data scientists who utilise the vast array of data now available on our habits, social media postings and similar in order to produce psychological insights into vast populations.
The Campaign for Social Science annual lecture held towards the end of last year touched on a similar theme. Beth Noveck traced the longstanding tensions between ‘expertise’ and democracy and went on to outline how new technologies could create ‘open systems of governing that are both more legitimate and more effective’.
Research Excellence Framework (REF)
The REF is used to assess the quality of research being done in UK higher education institutions and underpins the allocation of several billion pounds of funding every year. The consultation about the new REF was launched last month following on from the earlier ‘Nurse review’. The aim is to reduce burden of the assessment process, limit ‘gaming’ and shift the focus away from individuals towards institutional level assessments. The consultation document poses 44 questions including how staff and outputs for submission to the REF are selected, whether outputs can be portable between institutions when people move on and how ‘impact’ and the ‘research environment’ are assessed.
The deadline for responding is 17 March and we will report on key comments emerging as the deadline nears. The new rules are likely to be finalized in the summer with responsibility for implementation passing to the new body ‘Research England’ next April.
2017 - some challenges ahead
A number of developments will have a profound impact on the Universities and Research sector this year and into the future. Two of these are discussed here – the Higher Education and Research Bill, and Brexit. The consultation on changes to the Research Excellence Framework will be covered in the next edition of this newsletter.
The Higher Education and Research Bill has recently started its passage through the Lords and is likely to enter the statute book in the spring. It will have major implications for research funding with one of the main aims being to facilitate delivery of strategic and interdisciplinary research of a high quality. The bill is receiving a bumpy ride through parliament and a briefing note from AcSS raises some very important concerns about the powers being awarded to the government over the allocation of research funding. The research councils look set to lose their Royal Charters following the formation of an umbrella body – UK Research and Innovation (UK RI). A great deal will rest on how the new body operates in practice and Sir John Kingham (interim head of UKRI) recently attempted to reassure the community that UKRI will not be monolithic body. However many concerns remain about the implications for the scientific (in the widest sense) community and the future of independent social science research.
Brexit will also have significant implications though, of course, it is not clear what arrangements will be in place after the UK leaves the EU. European Research Funds are an important source of funding and serve to facilitate international collaboration and sharing of ideas and facilities. Brexit could also mean a loss of income from international students and recruitment and skills gaps from loss of international staff. All of these factors could have a negative impact on competitiveness, reputation, and health of the UK university and research sectors.
What lies ahead for social science?
In a recent Campaign for Social Science lecture Sharon Witherspoon said UK social science is in good shape but emphasized that there is little room for complacency. We still have far less empirical research than we need in some really key areas and fixing this is not just a matter of resources but reflects the way the social science community itself is structured. Also, too many social scientists lack some of the basic tools to be able to assess good versus bad evidence. The Q-Step programme is a major initiative but this is only a first step given the scale of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
As a community, we haven’t captured the public imagination, much less public commitment, on the need for governments to collect better evidence before they roll out what are essentially experiments on people’s lives. Many of the most important problems we face require interdisciplinary research yet such collaborations don’t just happen - they require infrastructure and investment.