How can we boost the impact of Social Sciences and Humanities? A report from Cardiff

By Mattia Fosci

Last week I attended the AESIS conference on Boosting the impact of Social Sciences and Humanities in Cardiff. It was an event-packed two-day conference with over 150 participants from academia, research funders and social scientists coming from the UK, Europe and North America.

As a social science researcher routinely working with practice, the underlying assumption of the conference – that social sciences and humanities (SSH) research is going through a crisis of relevance – resonated painfully with me. But the wealth and depth of arguments made by the speakers was so broad and rich that even my 20-odd pages of dense notes cannot hope to summarise it. Instead, I’ll share three personal takeaways.

  1. Measuring societal impact in SSH is hard

Tracking and measuring the societal impact of research is always challenging, but this is especially hard in SSH. On Thursday, the likes of Elsevier, Clarivate Analytics and ResearchFish showed some cutting-edge impact-tracking software. As technology leaps forward, there seems little doubt that researchers will soon be able to track how widely publications have spread through society. Whether it’s the number of retweet or press mentions, the so-called ‘alt-metrics’ are becoming established in the research community. However, time and again delegates reaffirmed that societal impact is best demonstrated through qualitative evidence rather than by numbers (something that was famously affirmed in the Leiden Manifesto).

But even producing qualitative evidence about impact can be very hard. Here are three reasons. First, impact can happen decades after the end of a research project (for example, William Adams from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation talked about a 1990s book on marriage history in the US which was used in the reasoning of the recent US Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage). Second, impact in SSH is often best appreciated by looking at a strand of research (e.g. has this shaped our understanding of a complex problem?) rather than individual research projects. Thirdly, because impact is often interdisciplinary – with SSH research contributing to the advancements of other fields or disciplines that in turn have societal impact. In sum, measuring impact in SSH requires a more high-level, long-term and qualitative approach than is currently the case.

  1. Problems and solutions lie with academia

The lack of impact in SSH research is a problem of irrelevance (academics asking the wrong questions) and inaccessibility (academics not making their research easy to understand). Both problems, in turn, are symptoms of the same attitude: academics speak to themselves not to society.

I found myself in agreement with David Sweeney of HEFCE’s polemical verdict: in a time of unprecedented environmental, technological, social and cultural changes, the era of researching one’s own interests is over. SSH must accept that research funders (especially those backed by the taxpayer) will choose to encourage research that addresses those challenges. If SSH researchers do not engage with today’s problems, irrelevance is inevitable.

The good news is that if SSH researchers do engage in finding solutions to today’s great challenges, there is much they can contribute. This was clearly demonstrated, among others, by the presentation of Bethanne Barnes of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) and Michele Chang-McGrath of ReD Associates – two non-academic organisations using SSH research to help government, communities and companies understand people’s fast-changing behaviours, needs and problems. Whether it is about influencing public spending decisions, drafting regulations or launching a new product or technology, SSH has the tools to understand how innovation should be shaped to maximise their positive effects on people. It is up to academia to use them.

  1. Technology brings new opportunities

The third message I took from the conference is that SSH must engage with technology if it wants to be impactful. Technology can – and perhaps should – be the object of SSH research. For instance, philosophers can help us understand, contextualise and regulate the development of artificial intelligence in ways that benefit us all. But artificial intelligence and so-called ‘big data’ can also be used to produce impactful SSH research.

In fairness, views about technology were slightly conflicting. Some people saw it as a challenge because the technology is being developed and used in commercial contexts: the powerful analytics and large datasets are often out of reach for budget-limited researchers. Moreover, using the technology requires technical knowledge that most researchers don’t possess – and which would need to be constantly updated. It will also demand a complete rethink and update of research methodologies in SSH which will push many researchers out of their comfort zone.

However, I think that all the above problems can be overcome. If researchers and their institutions invest money and time in technology, the impact return will be very significant. For instance, big data can be used to develop insights or apply theories through what Geoff Mulgan and his colleagues from Nesta call ‘collective intelligence’.

Conclusions

I left the conference with a bitter-sweet taste. On the one hand, I was excited to see that SSH researchers have great opportunities to be more influential in shaping society than they currently are. I was also comforted by the level of understanding and commitment showed by many leaders within the various disciplines – it proves that things are moving in the right direction.

On the other hand, these two days reminded me of how much work is needed to get there. The absence of policymakers at the conference was a stark reminder that the SSH is not yet making a strong case to the public. As we wait with bated breath for the world’s first Social Science Park (SSPARK) to receive final approval and be built in Cardiff, the SSH community must be open to radical changes if it wants to remain relevant into the future.