Social sciences 'no poor cousin'

The value of social sciences, due to the complex and often time-consuming nature of their studies, is frequently called into question. If you look globally at funding levels and sheer publishing output, the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and medicine) represent the dominant share by quite a margin. Unsurprisingly governments, funding bodies, industry and public debate often reflect this trend, relegating social science to the status of poor cousin. This lack of understanding around the value of social sciences has, and continues to become, a very real and present danger to how the research outputs of the discipline are supported.

These issues are particularly pressing in the US. While the Obama administration understands the importance of public policy informed by rigorous research, there are alarming signs of an anti-academic ethos in other quarters, singling out social science research as an easy target. The most visible example of this is the infamous Coburn Amendment which passed the Senate by voice vote last spring. This amendment restricts the National Science Foundation from funding political science research unless it supports national security or the economy.

Further threats to funding continue to come to the surface in the US, such as the recent (but failed) attempt to remove research into health economics from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) 2013 budget. And if you listen to house majority leader Eric Cantor, the tone is ominous: “Funds currently spent by the government on social science—including on politics of all things—would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.”

Paul Boyle, chief executive of the Economic & Social Research Council, has responded vigorously to this concern, saying: “The US has benefited enormously from social science research in the past. Politicians would be wise to acknowledge this and refrain from a self-defeating critique of the world’s leading social science community.”

More generally, social scientists are fighting back. Key umbrella bodies such as the Federation of Applied Behavioural & Brain Sciences (FABBS) and the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), along with major associations and university representatives, have taken the lead in responding directly to these threats, and we at SAGE have been delighted to support this excellent campaign.

Since its founding, SAGE has occupied an unusual position relative to the scholarly communications system. Social science was the foundation stone of our company since its inception nearly 50 years ago, while our move into STEM disciplines has been more recent. Accordingly we feel a responsibility to get directly involved, and have chosen to commit resources and effort to advocacy and engagement to help champion the value of social science research across the globe.

Co-operation

As well as our support of US social science bodies, we continue to work closely with our leading partner organisations here in the UK, such as the Campaign for Social Science, The British Academy and the Academy for Social Sciences, to create and support platforms for both research and public engagement with the social sciences.

Last autumn we co-hosted a one-day conference along with the London School of Economics to explore the specific issues that arise for the social sciences disciplines in moving to an Open Access environment. At the end of this month, we will launch a key work detailing the results of a major three-year ESRC-funded study carried out by academics at the LSE. “The Impact of the Social Sciences: How Academics and Their Research Make a Difference” will provide a vehicle to reach out to policy makers, the Research Excellence Framework panel, and senior university decision-makers to ensure that the value of social science in all aspects of our lives —across business, policy making, the economy and public thinking more generally—is not construed in narrow terms.

And of course the social sciences, in the end, cannot be completely divorced from the natural sciences. While they are often treated differentially by governments and funders, we have heard many key figures in the STEM disciplines calling for a recognition of how the social sciences are essential to many of their own goals. Climate change scientists, for example, are emphasising the need for more research on how to change individual and collective behaviour in light of the scientific consensus.

Fundamentally, we are looking to ensure the voices of the research community are heard by everyone who might find their work useful, whether policy makers or the wider public. Our recent partnership with [online project] The Conversation, which combines “academic rigour with journalistic flair”, is yet another effort to ensure the dissemination of useable knowledge to help create a healthier society. Across all levels in the organisation we will continue our responsibility to champion social sciences through our 50th anniversary in 2015 and for years to come.

Ziyad Marar is global publishing director of SAGE