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Let 2022 be the year where all the disciplines work together to build a stronger research base

Hetan Shah calls for the inclusion of social sciences, arts and humanities in achieving the science minister's priorities for research and development in 2022
This article is more than 2 years old

Hetan Shah is chief executive of the British Academy

If you thought your return to work this January was overwhelming, spare a thought for science minister George Freeman.

The minister took to Twitter to outline his priorities for 2022, which he rightly describes as a “crucial year” for the UK’s research & development (R&D) sector. From associating to Horizon Europe and establishing the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), to allocating the £20bn R&D funding promised by 2024-25 at the last spending review, the list serves as a sobering reminder of just how much the UK government must do to achieve what we are all working towards: establishing the UK as a research and development superpower.

The minister will be able to draw on the UK’s excellent research base, which includes those in STEM (sciences, technology, engineering and maths), as well as SHAPE (the social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy). During the pandemic, much of the focus has been on the former but SHAPE researchers have played an essential role in the pandemic response and are receiving increasing recognition for their contributions – just last week, Professor Laura Bear FBA received an MBE for services to anthropology during the pandemic.

In 2021 we published two landmark reports that brought together evidence from the SHAPE community to make sense of the profound social, economic and cultural consequences of Covid-19 and advise on how best to fix the damage in the decade ahead. The disciplines that informed these reports will be integral to delivering on the minister’s priorities for 2022.

The UK cannot become a research superpower without the unique talents and knowhow of those working in SHAPE.

Horizon Europe

It is good that the minister’s first priority is securing association to Horizon Europe. The European Research Council’s (ERC) world-leading discovery research is critical to the future of UK research and innovation and demonstrates the importance of association, which would allow UK academics to continue participating in the most valuable international research and innovation partnerships.

The ERC is the major retainer and attractor of talented researchers in the UK with, for example, over half of all UK-based ERC award holders being non-UK nationals. Research talent is the keystone of the minister’s “Innovation Nation”, and not associating to Horizon Europe would lead to a significant diminution of our ability to attract and retain the very best, and deliver on the UK’s wider research and innovation priorities.

For proof of just how innovative, robust and successful the SHAPE research base is, look no further than the ERC competitions. In recent years, UK-based SHAPE researchers have won more of the ERC’s Starting Grants for early career researchers than in any other country.

Decision making

Among George Freeman’s priorities, it was great to see him refer to the new National Science & Technology Council, which will seek to turn UK-based research and ideas into solutions for public good. Already people have begun to refer narrowly to this as the “Science Council”, but if the group is to be effective, it must incorporate a genuine breadth of expertise to meet its socioeconomic and cultural aims to “tackle great societal challenges, level up across the country and boost prosperity around the world.”

As the pandemic has shown, insights are most useful when they combine evidence from across the disciplines. For instance, scientists developed vaccines in record time, but anthropologists, linguists, sociologists, ethicists and psychologists helped governments to understand and attend to the complex issue of vaccine engagement.

The minister has highlighted his intention to implement the UK Innovation Strategy focus on the “technologies of tomorrow” to help create the next high growth sectors in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics and bioengineering. This is truly exciting work and if we are to harness these technologies effectively and safely, we will need input from a variety of disciplines. Consider the rollout of driverless cars in the not-too-distant future: we cannot just let potentially fatal autonomous vehicles roam the streets without first grappling with the legal and ethical implications. Technology is dependent on people, behaviour, politics, incentives – the domain of the SHAPE subjects.

Levelling up

The minister has also highlighted the government’s intent to progress the levelling up agenda and outlined plans to map and focus on approximately 30 R&D clusters around the UK. This is all the more important now that we are no longer able to receive the EU’s Structural Funds, which helped address inequalities.

The UK is an 80 per cent services economy, and many areas where we are world leaders – including design, finance and law – are driven increasingly by intangibles and ideas. Cutting edge research in data science and artificial intelligence-driven business is increasingly interdisciplinary. Therefore, SHAPE research has a crucial role to play, both in driving high growth sectors of the economy, and helping us understand what will drive productivity growth.

Whether it is highlighting areas of economic inequality, making sense of the statistics or shaping potential responses, the creative industries, economists and geographers will play a crucial role in making sure the R&D clusters succeed across the UK. It will of course take long term systemic change to help improve regional discrepancies in productivity and growth, but universities and other research and innovation organisations could play an important role in this as local anchor institutions.

The government’s plans for levelling up and the emphasis on research talent chime with our own priorities. With generous funding from the Wolfson Foundation, in 2021 we launched our Early Career Researcher Network, a two-year pilot programme which aims to establish an inclusive, UK-wide network for researchers in the humanities and social sciences, providing opportunities for skills development and networking. The network launched in the Midlands but has since expanded into the south west region of England. One further area to participate in the pilot will be announced in spring 2022. By supporting early career researchers at a time in their career when work is demanding and often precarious, the Academy will strengthen the UK’s SHAPE research base and hopefully help reinforce the government’s own R&D clusters.

These are just a few of the ways in which the UK’s world-leading SHAPE research base will play a crucial part in delivering George Freeman’s New Year objectives. There is much work to be done but the British Academy and our community are at work to strengthen the UK research base and continue to shape a prosperous and sustainable nation.

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