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10/07/2014

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Will the social sciences please stand up

Anjana Ahuja is ready to clap

While the Royal Society celebrates its 350th anniversary this year with well-planned pomp and glittering ceremony – not forgetting the gigantic models of flying dinosaurs tethered to the Royal Festival Hall – a rather younger academic collective is conducting its own, more modest trumpet-blowing campaign. Earlier this year, the Academy of Social Sciences held a one-day conference in Whitehall, entitled ‘Making the case for the social sciences’.

There was standing room only as David Willetts – then an opposition MP but now Science Minister – applauded social scientists for their contribution to public policy, such as discovering that children who regularly see their grandparents have better life outcomes than those who don’t. The gathering, which also saw contributions from elected politicians, peers, think-tank representatives, academics, policy-makers and journalists, was an attempt on the part of Professor Cary Cooper, the academy’s Chair, to push this shy science out from the shadows and into the spotlight.

The momentum is continuing with regular conferences to flag up findings in different areas; one in July concentrated on ageing and, for example, highlighted evidence that staying active staves off dementia.

Failure to engage

This new strategy is a tacit admission that social scientists have largely failed in the field of public engagement. ‘I think we have failed in the past to promote what social scientists really contribute to society,’ admits Cooper, the Distinguished Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University. ‘It’s had no single body to systematically promote it. Sure, we’ve had the British Psychological Society and smaller organizations such as those, but we’ve had no unified front. So here we are, and we’re the new kids on the block. Unlike the Royal Society, the Academy has only been around for a dozen years. The old organisations get money and premises but the social sciences are crucial to our future.’

The Academy of Social Sciences is now the matriarch of 38 learned societies – with the Association of Social Anthropologists, the British Society of Criminology and the Royal Town Planning Institute among her diverse brood – numbering 86,000 scientists, among them economists, psychologists, statisticians and linguists.

Capitalising on STEM

But, as well as the lack of a single champion, there has also been a lingering image problem. Professor Cooper says: ‘For a long time, the social sciences have felt themselves to be a poor cousin of the other sciences. The government is obsessed with STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine), and there’s nothing wrong with that, because we need a strong science base in this country. But if you leave social science out of the picture, you can’t capitalize on your other scientific findings.

‘For example, take all the work being done on climate change. There’s a lot being done on carbon emissions, but the crucial question is how you change people’s attitudes and behaviour. You can have all the science in the world but if you can’t get people to change their behaviour you don’t get any benefits.’

He is at pains to point out he is not taking issue with STEM scientists for hogging the limelight: Do I want to talk the STEM subjects down? Absolutely not. It’s not an ‘us’ against ‘them’ situation. But it’s the social sciences that can tell us about people’s attitudes and behaviour, and whether certain interventions work or not.’ He is further sharpening up the Academy’s act by encouraging it to respond swiftly to issues in the media, and to strengthen its advocacy of the social sciences.

Hitting the headlines

While he agrees that social scientists have sometimes been backward in coming forward, that also applies to other scientists, who sometimes feel uncomfortable in the public glare. But – as I know all too well as a former newspaper journalist - it actually tends to be social science research that hits the headlines, on issues such as parenting (does nursery damage children?), poverty (does the Child Trust Fund work?) and health behaviours (will taxing chocolate bars reduce consumption?).

Ageing, he says, is another major issue in which the social science dimension is often overlooked. First, the facts: looking a half-century ahead brings us to a frightening demographic vision filled with wrinkles, frailty and worse. By 2071, a quarter of the population is expected to be over 65. Among them will be around 9.5m over-80s. We also know that just under half of over-75s suffer some longstanding illness; with many, this will be dementia or some other type of neurodegenerative disorder, such as Alzheimer’s Disease or Parkinson’s.

Says Professor Cooper: ‘The medical science tells us about the impact of ageing on the brain, so we can expect more dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases as the population ages. But social science tells us that the more active people are, the less likely they are to suffer dementia. So it’s the social sciences that are going to help us here, by asking how are we going to encourage people to stay working longer, perhaps in less stressful jobs, or to volunteer, to keep them active and reduce dementia. It’s the economists who have to calculate what dementia costs, and who will give us the cost-benefit analysis of getting older people to work longer. So here we have psychology, economics, sociology and statistics all working together on this issue.’

Defence needed

Mr Willetts, the famously cerebral politician whose intellect has earned him the nickname Two Brains, has warned that the UK’s science base will not be immune from budget cuts. Professor Cooper realises that this makes it more crucial than ever for his colleagues to come together to champion and defend their contribution to public life. The new science minister, though, could be regarded as an ally, rather than a foe. He has a well-known fondness for the social sciences, and recently published an acclaimed book drawing on social science research. He has also confessed to liking New Scientist, not just for covering the usual exploding stars and fancy gizmos but for its serious treatment of the social sciences.

Finally, if Professor Cooper were given the chance to convince just one pubgoer of how social science fits into his everyday life, what would he say?

The bottom line

‘I would say this: that we know what happens to kids early on, such as a bad home life or learning difficulties, affects their job prospects and mental health later on; that when people fall into debt, they become ill, and so we must try to protect the vulnerable when times are hard; and the way that human beings are managed at work, from shop floor to top floor, can be either damaging to their health or very motivating.  We know, for example, that working long hours is not good for either people or UK plc, so why do we have the longest working hours in Europe? Why on earth do people pack themselves on to trains, in order to sit in offices and answer emails? Why don’t managers trust people to work wherever it’s convenient? People are stressed even before they come to work, and that’s not even counting the cost of pollution and energy from daily commuting.

‘I’m so proud of being a social scientist, and as an occupational health psychologist I know what social science has to offer. And it can dramatically affect the bottom line.’

As a reason for fiscally aware politicians and policymakers to engage with the social sciences, you can’t get more compelling than that.

1 D Willetts (2010) The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Stole Their Children’s Future – and How They Can Give It Back. Atlantic Books

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Anjana Ahuja
Anjana Ahuja is former feature writer and science columnist for The Times. Her first book, Selected, co-authored with Mark van Vugt and about the evolution of leadership, was published by Profile in August.
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