The need for more social science

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In the wake of a recent report from the Campaign for Social Science there has been a renewed debate on the importance of social science for the UK science and innovation system. Inter alia, the report called for a new senior Whitehall social science adviser and more explicit recognition for social science in government strategy, warning that failing to understand the socio-economic dimensions of innovation could jeopardise the potential of new technologies and advances in the life sciences, physics and engineering. It said the £4.7bn annual budget for science and innovation should increase by at least 10 per cent in real terms over this new parliament.

There are many good reasons for stronger social science research. From my own perspective as an innovation and innovation policy scholar, I argue that more than ever we need more – and better – social science in order to understand much better the dynamics and impacts of science and innovation.

Our global societies are faced with urgent challenges. These range from climate change to ever increasing levels of inequality both within and between countries, from lack of clean water supplies in many parts of the earth to security threats through globalised terrorism and organised crime.

New technologies
There are many new and promising technologies and innovations which can support sustainable solutions to many of these, and other, challenges. Continued investment in these, and their underlying scientific knowledge, is a condition sine qua non for the future of our planet.

However more technology and innovation does not easily add up to more societal value. The real contribution of science, technology and innovation to tackle societal challenges is far from obvious. All too often more innovation is called for simply as a means for more growth, without reflection on the kinds of knowledge and innovation we need to face our challenges, without taking into account the potential detrimental effects of those innovations, and without understanding the societal and systemic conditions to truly tackle our challenges.

To make decisions businesses, public research, policy and society at large need to understand societal conditions that have led to the challenges we face now. We need to better define the choices societies face, reflect on the societal, ethical and safety consequences of new technologies and innovation. We need to better understand the interplay of societal dynamics, new technologies and innovation. We need to better grasp the potential of innovations that are not based on technologies and market forces but societal needs; and, last but not least, we need to better appreciate the value of culture, diversity and historical awareness as context for fruitful innovation.

These are my reasons why we need more social science. But we don’t  just need more social science, we also need a much stronger integration of social science questions, theories, methods and processes into the process of generating knowledge and innovation, not as some kind of add-on, but in its core. We will judge the new government on the value they attribute to social science as one key enabler of a better future.

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Jakob Edler

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