Expert Opinion

Social Scientists CAN Change the World

Professor Jonathan Long attended the Yorkshire chapter of the Academy of Social Sciences on Wednesday 12 October, hosted by the University of York. In this blog post, he reflects on the issues raised at the meeting, including debating the ways in which social scientists can change the world.

Social Scientists CAN change the world. Although, it would be more accurate to say that the theme of the meeting I attended last night was that social scientists have a better chance of doing so if they adopt a trans-disciplinary and trans-sectoral approach: the latter, in particular, will help universities in their mission to turn outwards more.

Heather Campbell (Sheffield) enthused about the benefits of co-production of knowledge through working closely with non-academics to resolve social/policy matters, but made no bones about it sometimes being difficult and requiring the input of a lot of time.  She also drew attention to one of those involved who observed wryly that as academics we normally have the safe bubble of knowing that nobody will act on the research, whereas in their co-production exercise the people most likely to be able to act on the research had been instrumental in changing the research questions and methods through the course of the project.  Such shifts may make some academics feel awkward, and make it more difficult to fit the conventional processes of ethical review, but the approach recognise the expertise that lies elsewhere and does help to get a better fit between research and what should be done in policy and practice.

Heather has been centrally involved in the N8 initiative of the leading research intensive universities in the north of England.  This has co-ordinated projects shaped by non-academic partners: for example, the Leeds City Lab had included a project on traffic congestion; in Greater Manchester there had been a focus on skills development as part of economic revitalisation; York had worked with the police on mental health issues; and on a smaller scale there had been an interfaith project bringing people together to share knowledge.  All these had put people who do not regard themselves as academics at the heart of the research approach.

The AsSIST-UK project led by Andrew Webster (York) has been all about getting social scientists to work alongside researchers in science and technology.  This serves both to encourage ‘responsible research innovation’ and helps to gain a voice at government and other inquiries ranging from regenerative medicine to the form and consequences of Brexit.  Both he and Matthew Festenstein (York) were attracted by the possibilities of the Japanese model for introducing new medical treatments that, after initial development, can be offered to patients for their individual approval without the need for randomised control trials.  Andrew thought that by working in conjunction with the recipients of these treatments it might be possible for social scientists to help medical researchers devise an iterative approach that could produce more effective fits with ‘the adoption area’.

Looking to the future Matthew Festenstein spoke enthusiastically about the White Rose doctoral training programme developing the next generation of interdisciplinary researchers, who are encouraged from the outset to engage with a wide range of intellectual enquiry.

I was at a meeting of the Yorkshire chapter of the Academy of Social Sciences that was hosted by the University of York.  Although the Academy was established in the form of its predecessor body, the Association of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences, 35 years ago, its Yorkshire chapter is a fledgling initiative and this was only its second meeting (the next will be at the University of Leeds in March).

Stephen Anderson, the Director of the Academy, wound-up the evening by asserting that as AcSS receives no government funding it is easier to ‘speak truth to power’ than it is for the other academies.