The importance of social sciences in the UK

Social sciences and humanities play a vital, but sometimes overlooked role in the modern world. Here, Sir Adam Roberts notes the significant role social scientists play in British society.

In 2004, the former British Academy President Lord Runciman wrote:

“Too often government statements and official pronouncements refer approvingly to the undoubted contributions made by the natural sciences, engineering and technology to wealth generation, economic prosperity, knowledge transfer, innovation, and the development of new businesses, products and services, while failing to acknowledge the equally important contributions made by the arts, humanities and social sciences.”

The importance of social sciences in the UK

“How can we slow climate change if we don’t support work on how people change their behaviour? How can we make medical and scientific advances without analysing their human and ethical implications?”

Sadly, that statement remains largely true today. The enormous achievements of non-STEM disciplines are often overlooked, even when these involve, as so often, vital interdisciplinary research spanning the natural and social sciences. These misconceptions are potentially very damaging, especially at a time of diminishing resources. As modern research has become more and more interdisciplinary and we move increasingly beyond the sterile and outdated notion of a society of ‘two cultures’, the mutual dependencies of ‘hard’ science and the humanities and social sciences have become ever clearer.

The UK has an outstandingly strong research base in the social sciences and humanities. Each day thousands of extraordinarily gifted economists, lawyers, historians, linguists, philosophers, critics, archaeologists, geographers, sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists make important contributions to our shared public life. How can we tackle terrorism without a deep cultural understanding of the phenomenon? How can we slow climate change if we don’t support work on how people change their behaviour? How can we make medical and scientific advances without analysing their human and ethical implications? Their endeavours extend beyond the immediate needs of the economy, underpinning the culture of open and informed debate essential to any civilised, democratic society.

A report from the League of European Research Universities argues: “It is talent more than technology that society or business needs from universities. Research and the people trained in it inspire many of the ideas, aspirations and actions that contribute to the vitality of society and its capacity for bold creativity in responding to whatever the future might bring.”

There is no simple way of demonstrating the subtle and unexpected ways in which academic disciplines “contribute to the vitality of society”. Research and teaching often has effects in ways which may be captured in narratives as much as in statistics.

As the UK’s national academy and a major source of funding for social sciences and the humanities, the British Academy has a particular responsibility to champion the value they deliver and achieve recognition for it. Our new publication, Past Present and Future, does just that. For example, it shows how the Stern Review, led by economist Lord Nicholas Stern, drew attention to the economic, social and human impacts of climate change; how leading historian, David Cesarani, a specialist in the holocaust, has influenced government policy on war crimes; and how legal experts are tackling the dilemmas which new digital technologies are creating in crucial areas of regulation, trust and privacy.

The inter-dependencies of science and the humanities and social sciences have never been clearer in the fast-paced, technologically advanced world we now inhabit. It is vital we make sure these disciplines are sustained for the future.

To download a free copy of Past Present and Future, please visit - www.britac.ac.uk

Written by Sir Adam Roberts (2010)
President
British Academy

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