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R&D depends on a special ingredient


Time to restore the social sciences to their rightful place, says James Wilsdon

When you move to Sheffield, as I did eight years ago, one of the first things you discover is the culinary and cultural power of the local secret sauce: Henderson’s Relish. As the saying goes up here: “Some people call it Sheffield’s answer to Worcestershire Sauce—that’s not true. Hendo’s is Sheffield’s answer to everything.”

These days, Hendo’s even comes in red and white or blue and white bottles to cater for the tribal tastes of Sheffield United or Sheffield Wednesday fans. I wouldn’t pour it on my cornflakes, but if you’re cooking something more exciting, there are few dishes that don’t benefit from a good splash. It adds depth, complexity and richness, complementing and drawing out other ingredients and flavours.

In a report published today by the Academy of Social Sciences and Sage, we argue that the social sciences perform a similar function in the UK’s research and innovation system. Drawing on new data from Digital Science, we highlight four ways in which the social sciences act as a ‘secret sauce’ in wider recipes for R&D.

First, the social sciences enable whole systems thinking. They help innovators, entrepreneurs and decision-makers to understand broader system capabilities and dynamics—including how economies and institutions function, and the place of productivity, skills, training and organisational culture.

Second, the social sciences are vital for good policy development. Our data show that social scientists play a disproportionately large role in informing policy debates, here in the UK and internationally. Around 3 per cent of publications supported by Stem-related research grants in the UK end up being cited in policy documents. This rises to 6 per cent of publications supported by social science-related grants and 7.5 per cent of publications from grants that can be characterised as interdisciplinary, often with Stem and social science collaborators.

Third, the social sciences underpin smart and responsible innovation. New and emerging technologies depend upon social sciences for the legal, regulatory and ethical frameworks that are essential for them to advance in ways that maximise their opportunities, safeguard against risks, and protect the vulnerable. Across published research in specific fields such as the ethics of AI and autonomous systems, analysis by Digital Science shows that UK social science research gains on average 240 per cent more citations than the global norm.

Finally, the social sciences are essential to international collaboration and capacity to address shared challenges, including the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The UK’s international research and innovation strategy is underpinned by insights and expertise from the social sciences—including from business and management, politics, geography, area studies and international development.

Creative blend

At some level, the government recognises that the UK research system relies upon—and often creatively blends—expertise, evidence and skills from across Stem fields, the arts, humanities and social sciences. But in the past five years, we’ve heard a great deal from ministers about the transformative power of science and new technologies, and a lot less about the contribution of the rest of the system to meeting national priorities.

There has been a palpable narrowing of focus, and a turn away from the more holistic systems-thinking that values such connections and interdependencies, and was increasingly central to policy from 2000 onwards, across Labour, Conservative and coalition governments. More recently, this has been exacerbated by a culture war mindset, which makes some in the present government hostile to the social sciences, irrespective of their contribution.

Two of the most significant policy documents in this area of the last Parliament—the 2021 Integrated Review and the Science & Technology Framework, published by the newly created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology in March 2023—contain a combined total of 175 substantive references to “science” or “S&T”, 211 references to “technology”, and another 93 to specific technologies (including AI). By contrast, the social sciences chalk up only one solitary mention, and the arts and humanities manage two.

This needs to change. When he took office as US president in 2009, one of Barack Obama’s early pledges in a well-received speech to the National Academy of Sciences was “to restore science to its rightful place”, after a period in which it had been undervalued and undermined by his predecessor.

In the UK, as we look ahead to the next election and the likelihood of a Labour government, it’s time to restore the social sciences to their rightful place in the way we structure, plan and invest for a high-performing, transdisciplinary research and innovation system, capable of meeting the acute challenges we face.

James Wilsdon is professor of research policy and director of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI) at UCL. Reimagining the Recipe for Research & Innovation: the secret sauce of social science is available to download free from the Academy of Social Sciences website.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight