The writer is a science commentator
The recipe for becoming a science and technology superpower involves more than simply excelling at science and technology. There is an overlooked ingredient that can tie a country’s research and development strategy together.
That essential staple is the social sciences, according to a report published last week by — surprise, surprise — the UK’s Academy of Social Sciences. While the government is having its head turned by shiny new technologies from AI to nuclear fusion, the report says, our leaders have much less to say on how the country’s globally admired proficiency in social sciences — which include such varied disciplines as business and management, geography, sociology and statistics — can help sculpt our future.
The exclusionary focus on the gee-whiz factor has left the UK’s research and innovation strategy “at risk of being lopsided and missing an equivalently rich, textured and ambitious agenda for . . . addressing the UK’s economic, social and environmental priorities.”
The report has a point. It calls for a bigger role for these Cinderella sciences in research and innovation, including using the 2025 Spending Review to target more funding towards cross-disciplinary projects; and some harder thinking from the Government Office for Science and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, including a social sciences framework akin to the recently published science and technology framework.
What is missing from the report, however, is an idea first floated more than a decade ago and which surfaced again in conversations at last week’s launch event in London: that the government should appoint a chief social scientist, to exist alongside its chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer.
Civil servants already supply social and behavioural research and advice to ministers through a stream called Government Social Research. Even so, a cross-departmental CSS might help to keep those disciplines at the front of ministerial minds.
“I think such a post would be very helpful,” says Professor Susan Michie, director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London. Had a chief social scientist featured in Number 10’s leadership team during the pandemic, she speculates, the concept of “behavioural fatigue”, which delayed lockdowns and contributed to the tally of avoidable deaths, would likely have been dismissed earlier on.
There is much in the new report, called Reimagining the Recipe for Research and Innovation, to recommend it. Riffing on the culinary theme, it describes the social sciences as a “secret sauce” that can bring out the full flavour of high-tech research rather than being dolloped on as an afterthought. There is even a term for the latter: “ELSIfication” refers to social scientists being hauled in at the last minute to help with the ethical, legal and societal implications of futuristic advances such as genome editing.
These social aspects matter from the outset: even the shiniest science cannot go the distance solo in confronting such challenges. As the current resurgence of measles attests, effective vaccines are only successful if people choose to use them. That requires addressing issues such as public mistrust and misinformation.
That, in turn, needs specialists like sociologists, lawyers, anthropologists and psychologists — all social scientists who study people and their interactions with others and with the world.
Ed Bridges, the academy’s head of policy and public affairs, says they are not yet petitioning specifically for a chief social scientist but “it has been mooted in the past . . . and might well be something a new government, whoever wins the election, might consider.” The idea was proposed in 2011 by the House of Lords — but not adopted.
There is another reason why the UK needs a research gaze beyond the science-heavy rhetoric. David Edgerton, a historian at King’s College London, wrote recently that the collapse of Britishvolt exposes the superpower strategy as doomed-to-fail hubris: “ . . . not only is the strength of UK innovation overestimated, but the whole model of national transformation through innovation . . . has been followed in the UK for 40 years with very little success.”
Instead, he argued, leaders could adopt a “foundational economy” approach that focuses thinking on the “multiple infrastructures that sustain a decent life”, including food, jobs, housing, healthcare and transport. In this future, glossy high-tech breakthroughs matter less than socially informed policy choices that tangibly improve people’s lives.