Rita Gardner is Chief Executive of the Academy of Social Sciences

It is no secret that, for a country of 69 million people, the UK benefits from a larger-than-average share of leading universities which support a broad research and innovation (R&I) system.

UK R&I currently enjoys high levels of support across the political spectrum, as illustrated by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak championing a vision for the UK as a “science and technology superpower.” In response, recent UK government announcements and initiatives have placed a clear priority on STEM-related R&I.

Yet scratch beneath the surface and it is social science that lies at the heart of many of the UK government’s research priorities.

A secret sauce

A new report by the Academy of Social Sciences unpacks this by examining the vitally important – yet often poorly understood – role that social sciences play in the UK’s R&I system. We argue that social science research acts as a “secret sauce” which transforms STEM research into something which society can adopt and use.

The report sets out a number of case studies where the expertise of social scientists is fundamental to ensuring, for example, that new technologies can fit with the world around us, such as through responsible legislation to govern artificial intelligence tools and assist with the regulation of new technologies.

The report draws on data from the Digital Science Dimensions database to develop its findings. Our analysis of selected topical areas of collaborative research in the UK found a symbiotic relationship between the social sciences and STEM – with collaborative work across both areas often being more useful to policymakers than research insights from one area alone.

The report makes four key points – social sciences enable whole-systems thinking, are critical for good policy development, underpin smart and responsible innovation, and are essential to international collaboration and tackling shared global challenges.

Go interdisciplinary

So, in an election year, how might the UK government realise the full potential of the social sciences to UK research and innovation? The report makes a series of recommendations, but two should leap out to the next government, of whatever political hue.

First, that investment in interdisciplinary research is an investment in innovation. To take a concrete example, the field of autonomous systems, AI and ethics shows the social sciences grappling with the social implications of the capabilities and consequences of emerging technologies.

Elsewhere, in digital health technologies, cross-disciplinary research ranges from natural language processing to social touch. Increasing investment into inter- and multi-disciplinary research like this has begun to be addressed by UKRI’s cross-council responsive mode funding scheme. But more needs to be done if the unfulfilled potential of cross-disciplinary research is to be fully realised.

Such research in more heavily STEM-related areas brings the strengths of the social sciences to bear: questioning paradigms, anticipating unintended consequences, exploring adoption and adaptation challenges, and providing vital social, cultural and historical contexts.

We see this, for example, in the informing and explaining of climate change science, where social scientists are engaged in research on behaviour change to complement scientific advances, or in identifying and eliminating discrimination within algorithms and automated decision-making. For HE and policy ecosystems, embracing the opportunities presented by cross-disciplinary research offers the potential for the UK to further cement its global reputation as a leader in research and innovation.

We therefore call on UKRI to scale up its investments in inter- and multi-disciplinary research, training and leadership progressively, and to encourage this to be embraced by both the UK Government and the devolved nations.

An opportunity presents itself at the next Spending Review in 2025, when further targeted support could be offered. The Economic, Social and Research Council (ESRC), in particular, has a key role to play as a facilitator and amplifier of social science in cross-disciplinary contributions to the wider UK research and innovation system.

Make good decisions

Our second recommendation is around the need for social science to be embedded in decision-making frameworks.

The societal implications of AI-based apps such as Chat GPT has become a hot topic, amidst many high-profile debates on its governance and use. However, we turn to the social sciences to address the challenges posed by effective anticipatory governance of the opportunities presented by technological innovation.

Through their research and understanding of human behaviour, public opinion, legal systems, markets and public policy, social scientists can help to ensure the responsible and sustainable use and development of new technologies, whilst their insight into public attitudes, nationally and internationally, can assist with how governments and businesses approach public engagement with emerging science and technology.

For this expertise to be put to more effective use in policy development, we strongly urge the Government Office for Science and the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology (DSIT) to develop integrated strategies for engaging with all sectors and disciplines. A Social Science Framework, similar to the recently launched Science and Technology Framework, would allow for social science insights to more directly contribute to the UK’s technological, social, economic and environmental priorities as set out by the government.

Resetting the narrative

More than anything, the report seeks to reset a narrative that has begun to position STEM disproportionately as the focus of UK research and innovation policy.

The authors draw attention to just some of the many ways in which a healthy and vibrant research culture draws on the nation’s research strengths, in both STEM and social science. We are fortunate in the UK to have a world-leading social science research base, and to already boast some inspiring and effective cross-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary partnerships between our social sciences and STEM.

Embracing the symbiosis between the two more fully will pay dividends for UK research and innovation in the years ahead.

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