What do we get for our £185 million? The ESRC.

The UK government spends £185 million p.a. on the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC ).   There are a large number of very clever people conducting sophisticated research into everything economic and social, from energy use in the UK to the relationship between religious faith and happiness.  The research process is an excellent training ground for researchers and provides both content and process for the thousands of graduates in these fields who take aspects of their undergraduate training into their future employment.   I wonder, outwith these spheres, how many informed UK citizens, trying to make sense of their social experience and aspirations, make use of their work (as opposed to say the articles in their daily newspapers).  It’s easy enough to keep up to date:   you can subscribe to Society Now which will be sent to you through the post;  there’s also a regular e.newsletter, a freely available annual report and thematic media-friendly presentations, such as the recent video Seven Days of Science, and its associated report.

Is it worth the money?  I own a bias.  I would rather live in a world where our newspapers had fewer ‘lifestyle’ sections and more reports of ESRC research, where, instead of discussing the latest erotic bestseller, column inches were devoted to issues such as the definition and social impact of poverty ( Wednesday’s Child) and the extent to which concepts such as ‘wellbeing’ and ‘happiness’ should feature in our political debates.   However, prioritising the democratic value of ‘freedom’ over its equally important counterpart ‘equality’, our media are, by and large, run for profit, without much of a public service obligation – unless you consider the BBC’s bread and circus jingoistic promotion of ‘Team GB’ to be a public service.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love the Olympics as a wonderful coming together of the human family in a unique celebration…  but after two days, to be honest, I don’t want to hear about another British medal hopeful.  If they win, fine, if they don’t, fine.  As they used to say, it’s the taking part that counts, isn’t it?

Another problem with the work of ESRC, and academic work generally, is that it dissipates the motivation for action, substituting a motivation for research, often research that then produces the need for more research.  Presented with social problems, well-intentioned academics believe that they have done something by producing a research report.  Moreover, any ‘person in the street’ can dismiss the research as ‘opinion’ or ‘politically motivated’.  Common sense, and the regular apparent failure of economics to explain or predict outcomes, support a view that social science is not science.

So is Social Science science?  There are good reasons for answering ‘yes – but of a specific sort’. The concepts of validity and reliability underpin a quasi-scientific methodological backbone to most social science and, correctly applied, ensure the necessary element of provisionality and caution accompany claims.   However social science, and its evil twin economics, is often undermined from two sides:

  • the surprising number of (possibly unintended) conceptual gaffes (such as the jump from correlation to causation) which still seem to slip through the net of academic scrutiny;
  • an academic discourse (of both left an right) where the ‘science’ is a smokescreen, an ‘evidence-base’ of cherry-picked research findings, chosen to support particular value / political positions.

In order to get at these underlying presumptions and assumptions, we need a different kin of debate, a more philosophical debate.  Perhaps every educated citizen, and every budding social scientist, should have to read David Hume and Karl Popper first.  That might help to bring a necessary clarity to our discussions.!


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