Social scientists attending the meeting of the Yorkshire Chapter of the Academy of Social Sciences might be forgiven for feeling uneasy about the government’s plans for research. Yes, the social sciences will get a share of the increased £4.7bn to be spent on research that was announced in the autumn statement to soften the likely loss of European funding post Brexit. However, as James Wilsdon (Sheffield) explained, all the themes identified in the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, apart from some elements of ‘Integrated and Sustainable Cities’, related to STEM subjects. This is associated with an emphasis on grand, capital intensive projects focused mainly on developing medical and technological advances, coinciding with a growing share of research funding going to ‘the golden triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge. The planned dissolution of the separate funding councils to become subordinate committees of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), allied with the scientific-medical purview of the incoming leadership, was presented as a cause for concern for the social science community.
Peter Buckley (Leeds) tried to tease out the implications for the much trumpeted Northern Powerhouse. That did not sound too promising either, although there was a suggestion that the focus of industrial and research strategies on the South East was bound to founder on the crisis in the housing market.
There were some more positive notes. For example, the Global Challenges Research Fund appears to offer more scope with one third of its initial funding identified for social research. The proposal for Zinc, a new commercial social science institute aspiring to replicate the impact on social policy of the LSE in its early days, was also held up as a model for how social scientists might apply their expertise to issues such as productivity and efficiency in diverse areas of policy and provision. Its manifesto bravely protests that it will ‘solve chronic social problems by turning social science insight into technology-enabled businesses.’
Not surprisingly, though, there was concern that, particularly in light of Brexit, there seemed to be no room for issues of central importance to social science and industrial progress, for example the pressing problems social of social justice encompassing inequalities, precarity and immigration.
As the discussion developed, it was suggested that part of the problem is that, while government presumes the role of research is to deliver magic bullets that provide single simple solutions to problems, the first response of social scientists is to demonstrate the complexity of the issue and try to redefine the problem. However, Andrew Webster (York) argued that, while it was indeed our role to explain the complexities and subtleties of issues, it was perfectly possible for us then to distil and simplify the key issues and guide policy debates.
Jonathan Long and Brendan Gough were attending the meeting of the Yorkshire Chapter of the Academy of Social Sciences held at Leeds University, 21/3/17. The lead speaker, Professor James Wisldon (University of Sheffield), is also chair of the Academy’s Campaign for Social Science.