UK social science: past imperfect, future tense

UK social science: past imperfect, future tense

David Walker

Social science in the UK has virtually no past. The 50th anniversary of the ESRC passed a few months back with barely a raised ripple among academics and indifference everywhere else. I tried to raise a flag (Walker, 2015). The research council is one of the few public expressions of social science identity and its half century seemed to me an occasion for much-needed reflection. I learnt, however, that for all the chatter about ‘reflexivity’, critique is not meant to extend as far as interrogating grant-giving bodies. Discussion of state policy for social science (expressed in part in the ESRC) compromised the Academy of Social Sciences, I was roundly told by the chair of its council: interests might be harmed.

Because UK social science has no past it struggles to affirm any collective identity. The institutions that voice it and give it public salience struggle with their own missions. Neither the British Academy nor the AcSS can quite decide what they are; the balance between ‘honour’ and representativeness. These academies cannot speak for the bulk of social science people in UK higher education let alone those practising the methods and intellectual disciplines of social and economic research in government, business or the third sector. Besides, the academies are hedged about with robust and autarkic learned societies and subject associations. They can be narrowly disciplinary and are often oblivious to any wider field and exclusive.

Which leaves the research council as a central potential public identifier for social science. But the ESRC is an organ of state. Its budget comes from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. At its council meetings attends a high representative of that Whitehall department; its members usually include senior Treasury officials. But it is an organ of a state that doesn’t care a great deal about social science. Whitehall’s analysis and research functions are fragmented between separate networks of statisticians, economists, operational researchers and ‘social researchers’. (If many of the latter graduated with sociology degrees, that label is rarely used.)

And, in addition, there is ‘science’, which for official purposes does not include social science. The government chief science adviser and the Government Office for Science talk of Wissenschaft; contributions from historians and anthropologists are as valid as from biology and physics. But not in practice. For most purposes government science means Royal Society science plus engineering and medicine. Sir Paul Nurse recently glossed his own report on the future of the research councils, insisting that only a natural or life scientists could head the merged body he successfully proposed to the government to replace the seven existing research council.

At its birth, the research council did aspire to be that public presence. The Social Science Research Council initially saw its role as broad advocacy for the functionality of social science knowledge: they then believed social and economic investigation was the path to enlightenment. Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat’ was to be applied to society and economy, delivering the underpinnings of institutional improvement and material growth. Schools, industrial and race relations, cities, skills, transport – all would all be better in the brave social science-informed world. The SSRC’s first chair, Michael Young, edited a collection of essays on the benefits of forecasting (Young, 1968). The mindset was statist, pro-planning and multidisciplinary; social science was integrative and convergent. The SSRC was consciously funding the science of social change. It would unabashedly ‘help administrators’. Young’s successor, Andrew Shonfield, urged social scientists to get involved with policy and practice (provided their integrity was protected by strong protocols and even administrative law). The SSRC would brigade social science knowledge to scan trends in society and economy, in order to indicate to policymakers ‘an order of priorities, suggesting to them ways in which they could increase certain types of knowledge they would need later on’ (Shonfield, 1972).

Smile though we might at such social democratic credulousness, we should at least credit the founders with a public vision for the research council and the knowledge it was supposed to be supporting. And fort leadership that was prepared to publish arguments about the council and debate them with both academics and ministers. The research council subsequently retreated into a more private and protected space, defining itself as part of the higher education support system. This was in part a defensive reaction to its attempted assassination by the Thatcher government in 1981-82. Looking back to that peculiar episode, when Tory ministers could regard social science as inherently dangerous, some might regret today’s cosiness. Then, the special adviser to the Tory education secretary Sir Keith Joseph was despatched to find evidence of socialist ‘bias’ in sociology; now, the special adviser (Oliver Letwin) is minister for policy in the Cameron government where he heads task forces to promote social mobility.

In Exaggerated Claims I argue that it is too simple to characterise the post 1984 ESRC as a linear transmission mechanism, posting government priorities to researchers and refusing them funds if they do not subscribe. You can’t take the balance between ‘responsive’ and ‘managed’ funds at face value. An antidote to such a reading is to examine how government actually thinks about its knowledge needs. It turns out that it doesn’t. The UK central state – the same point could be made more or less about devolved and local government – has historically been unconcerned about its own cognitive enrichment. State institutions specifically concerned with knowledge generation (including the Office of National Statistics, the Bank of England and departmental research budgets) are largely unconnected. When Nurse surveyed this landscape, one of his first thoughts was – Whitehall needs a knowledge council, coordinating the departments. So far, true to form, both the Treasury and BIS have rejected the idea.

So when academics feel themselves pressed by the research council’s statement of priorities, they need to ask whose they really are. Ministers say they want to know. For example a recent refrain has been: we need a formula for increasing productivity. But even if social science could come up with such a thing, the fate of Port Talbot shows how strong the ideological constraints on applying it would be: this would be statism of a kind the Cameron and coalition governments and, more or less, Labour before them rejected. State knowledge is only required by an active state. As for ‘What Works’ – the set of projects part funded by the ESRC meant to be establishing (causal?) effects of policy interventions – it’s their haphazardness and contingency that is most striking.

What happens instead is a game between civil servants and researchers played, like so much else in British central government, tacitly and within the space of ‘prerogative’ (unmonitored and unaccountable) decision-making. As long as ministers can persuade themselves the knowledge base is being organised in ways that roughly correspond to conventional wisdom’s sense of need-to-know – ‘grand challenges’ – the research council and those it funds can still enjoy wide discretion in what they choose to look at. The latter complain they are being constrained; the former presents this complaint as evidence to BIS that priorities are being imposed. In reality, clever academic game players will succeed in repackaging their research proposals in fashionable language and tick the right boxes. The 2015 ESRC strategic plan is illustrative. Its priorities cannot be inferred from ministers’ policies yet its language is not innocent and perhaps echoes what they might say (or what civil servants might write for them to say) if they ever stopped to think about thinking.

The ESRC cannot be blamed for social science’s cultural weakness and its lack of purchase on public imagination and decision-making. They are associated with the relative strength of the constituent disciplines, also with the fissures between academic and practical research. The upshot is the absence of anything resembling a ‘strategic’ or societal conversation about both the types of knowledge that are or should be produced under the social science rubric and, crucially, how such knowledge (especially academic knowledge) could be put to use. That phrase does not just mean applied to enhance corporate profitability or increase organisational effectiveness or even improve public policy (an inherently normative objective). It also points to public self-knowledge: how citizens understand themselves as voters, victims, subjects of power and markets and actors in history. Without a strong social science presence, propagated by thinkers and researchers able to transcend their disciplines, society and economy struggle to know themselves.

Shonfield, A. (1972) ‘The Social Sciences in the Great Debate on Science Policy’, Minerva, Vol X, No 3, July.
Young, M. (1968) Forecasting and the Social Sciences (Heinemann).
Walker, D. (2015) Exaggerated Claims: the ESRC 50 years on (Sage)


David Walker is a journalist with a longstanding interest in social science. He edited Guardian Public before joining the Audit Commission as managing director, public reporting. He served on the council of the ESRC for seven years and was a trustee of NatCen and the Nuffield Trust; he chairs the governing board of Understanding Society. He was till recently head of policy for the AcSS. His books include Unjust Rewards and Cameron’s Coup (both with Polly Toynbee).

Image: James Stewart. CC-BY-SA-2.0