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Focus on STEM risks sidelining social science innovation

Of course, science, technology, engineering and mathematics research are important, but social sciences research creates huge benefits to society in multiple ways. Leo Grübler/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Focus on STEM risks sidelining social science innovation

The best innovations make life better. They may be life-saving technologies, health innovations or energy efficiency, all of which have a broad impact. But it’s important to remember that they can also be simple things that help improve everyday life.

So while the Turnbull government’s enthusiasm for innovation and research commercialisation is a very positive development, we need to be mindful of where real value lies.

It’s not just in impressive gadgets, new pills, or profits. The greatest return on society’s research investment lies in ideas that result in better lives.

This means the government should not forget about the humanities, arts and social sciences in its innovation statement.

Of course, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research are important. Although social sciences research produces less money, it creates huge savings to society in multiple ways.

Social innovation vs frontier discoveries

STEM research often requires large industries to take up its innovations. But few of these industries are located in Australia; we have no big pharmaceutical companies to make vaccines, for instance, or technology companies to manufacture new machines.

STEM breakthroughs tend to be few and far between. And the process of innovation through this kind of research will only become more challenging as China and India continue to rise, providing the industrial base and size to generate demand and the financial backing for commercialisation.

Australia, by contrast, is a services economy, so we regularly innovate in health, management, social programs, education and finance – and we have the industries eager to take up these innovations. These will be the products of social science research. They are less tangible, but no less impactful and economically valuable, with inherent translation mechanisms.

Discussions about the commercial value of research are based on broad generalisations that obscure the subtle, cumulative, iterative and diffuse impact of research in the social sciences.

This kind of research rarely generates massive breakthroughs; it’s usually the result of a collaborative effort and isn’t easily tracked back to a single genius who can claim intellectual property.

Undervalued impact

Research in the humanities, arts and social sciences is often driven by philosophies of social justice and public benefit, which don’t always sit comfortably with commercialisation. It thrives on an impressive degree of unpaid knowledge transfer and engagement that’s uncosted and often undervalued.

A case in point is health services research, an interdisciplinary area that focuses on the way in which technology, treatments and services are delivered to all Australians, including the most vulnerable. Health services researchers have an entirely different focus to “frontier” scientists, but both are critical.

Health services research focuses on the way in which technology, treatments and services are delivered. Kate Ter Haar/Flickr, CC BY

A number of programs now embedded in our health and community service system started life as a research project in the humanities, arts and social sciences.

The Skills To Enable People and Communities program (STEPS), for instance, delivers a network of trained local community members who help Queenslanders with brain injuries to live full lives in their local communities.

Starting with a government grant, the project has gradually built into a broader institutional partnership between the Queensland Health Metro South Division of Rehabilitation and Griffith University. This ensures timely, relevant research with inherent translation.

Partnerships like this return no funds to the researchers through commercialisation, but they contribute to the wellbeing of the most vulnerable in our country.

Innovation is demand-driven

Indeed, innovations like this deliver significant uncosted benefit to Australian communities in terms of prevention, better services, more effective delivery systems, better outcomes and savings. But the cost of this type of research is minimal.

In 2009, for instance, just A$23 million was spent on health services research compared to A$336 million on basic science.

Research in the humanities, arts and social sciences requires the cooperation of all stakeholders and relies on an inherently translational and collaborative process.

Findings are often put into practice (“commercialised”) as they emerge. And the products are often intangible, taking the form of new procedures and processes, improved teaching or supervision practices, shifting attitudes, reflection and reform, informed policy and active consumers.

The government’s starting place should be to recognise that innovation is largely demand-driven, so to innovate universities have to be locally focused and responsive to the needs of industry or community. And the way to ensure success is to have businesses and governments include their local university in their strategic planning. They need to see their local campus as the first port of call for well-grounded, evidence-based solutions to their challenges.

This demand will drive implementation of research into practice and policy and will deliver outcomes even more valuable than commercialisation.

This article is part of our series Why innovation matters. Look out for more articles on the topic in the coming days.