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The Social Sciences in Britain

Commission assesses nature of, and needed changes in, social sciences

by Harold Orlans, Bethesda, Maryland

A valuable report on the status and potential of the social sciences in Britain, titled Great Expectations: The Social Sciences in Britain, has been issued by an independent 13-member commission composed of academics and users of social research.* The commission, funded by two government bodies and the Rowntree Foundation, was formed at the initiative of the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences, a bipartite organization of 43 societies and 359 elected individuals.

The 166-page report, based on contributions from more than 200 individuals and many organizations, reviews “the most complete known set of statistics” on the social sciences in the United Kingdom, and assesses their current strengths and weaknesses. Some £2.8 billion ($5.1 billion U.S.) is now spent on social science fields in higher educational institutions alone, 20% of which is for research.

The commission, acknowledging that the term social science “is a misnomer,” defines social science as “disciplined curiosity about societies…leading to the creation and sharing of social knowledge.” In this very broad conception, 23 fields, including business and media studies, education, law, library and information management, nursing, philosophy, social aspects of medicine, statistics, and town planning, are wholly or partly social sciences. The breadth (or vagueness) reflects the commission’s interest in both the generation and practical uses of knowledge and its hope that the social sciences may influence and serve all of society, not just a few academic disciplines. If its hopes are great, its claims are modest. Similar U.S. reports make large claims for the social sciences; the commission acknowledges their many shortcomings in personnel, quality, and relevance to public concerns.

Quality of Research

The report says the average quality of university business and management research is unacceptably low and quotes Warwick University economist Andrew Oswald’s judgment that “British economics is in a mess…. We were a real power…. Now we are second-rate.” It declares that business and government are dissatisfied with “much of the help they get from social scientists” who can be oblivious of their needs, give “ideological pre-ordained answers,” and cannot present useful conclusions. One foundation could not spend a fifth of its funds because it received too few good proposals.

The report finds much academic social research too abstract, unoriginal, and “context-free” to be of direct value to local governments. Senior members of think tanks and research centers (many, former academics) strongly criticize “the rigidities of [academic] administration…[the] glacial speeds of investigations,” the amateurishness and triviality of academic research. The commission rebukes those to whom social science is “a mind-exercise,” suggesting that the armchair approach of early scholars persists in some quarters.

To address these concerns, the commission offers 60 recommendations to government, funding councils, universities, individual social scientists, and other key stakeholders.

The Good News

On the positive side, the commission ranks U.K. social science first among nations in volume, after the United States, and first in Europe in qualitative research. Except in business and management, it says, “teaching in the main social sciences seems…of excellent quality,” but the teaching and use of quantitative methods should be improved.

To improve the social sciences and their practical usefulness, it recommends: Universities should establish think tanks and public policy schools like those in the United States; more international and interdisciplinary research should be encouraged; the quantitative skills of government officials should be enhanced; social scientists’ links to business should be strengthened; government funding rules should be changed to raise graduate student stipends and faculty salaries in shortage fields such as economics. A new breed of journalists should remedy the “bad blood” between many social scientists and journalists and render research findings comprehensible to the public. All social scientists should post their publicly funded research findings on websites.

Though the government’s refrain of “evidence-based policy” heartens empirical researchers, its current arrangements for funding research and obtaining policy advice do not satisfy the commission. The Royal Society represents the physical sciences; the commission would like a parallel body established for the social sciences.

Perennial Issues

The commission reprises issues endlessly debated in the United States. What are the social sciences? Are they really sciences? (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher struck “science” from the name of the government agency funding social research, now titled the “Economic and Social Research Council.”) Can and should the social sciences’ empirical, social, and political components be meaningfully separated? Is their public standing and policy advice best served by an alliance with, or independence from, the natural sciences?

In their financial and public status, U.K. social scientists seem decades behind those in the United States. Will that help them avoid at least some of the vain claims their U.S. colleagues have made (such as equating arbitrary quantification with objectivity and the implementation of social programs with the development of technology)? The commission’s tone is generally sober and moderate, but it does sympathize with a claim no reader will live to confirm: “[T]he twenty first century will be ‘the social sciences’ century.’”

*Commission on the Social Sciences (March 2003). Great Expectations: The Social Sciences in Britain (see www.the-academy.org.uk/). An earlier version of this article appeared in Change, Nov./Dec. 2003. An independent scholar, Orlans can be reached at horlans@comcast.net.