Skew towards science is neglecting a £23.4bn social sciences industry

Give the bookworms a chance. LifeSupercharger

The social sciences can now be seen as substantial UK industry, worth £23.4bn a year in broad economic terms according to my research. But subjects such as politics, economics, business, law and sociology are not being given due recognition for their contribution to the UK’s service economy and labour market.

The direct spend on university social science comprises just above a tenth of this total, coming out at £2.7bn a year.

But we need to also look at the indirect economic benefits of social science departments procuring goods and services, and at the multiplier effects of social scientists’ wages on the rest of the economy. As new research for a book, The Impact of the Social Sciences shows, these increase the total contribution to the economy of university social science to £4.8bn a year. And new analysis by the Times Higher Education also shows that social science student numbers, and hence staff numbers have been growing consistently.

The remaining £19.4bn a year of impact is comprised of spending by firms, government and public sector agencies, non-governmental organisations and the media who employ some 380,000 post-graduate qualified social scientists in professional and analysis occupations. Because of limitations in the labour force statistics, we can only get a conservative view of how much these other organisations are spending on translating and mediating social science research.

Translators of social science. Cambridge Econometrics, for LSE Impacts Project. Numbers rounded

The two biggest groups are nearly 180,000 professionals in government and public services (costing £8.7bn a year); and 170,000 analysts and research translators in finance institutions and the banking industry (costing £9.8bn a year). Our research also identified 40,000 professionals working in the consultancy industry (costing £1bn a year, half of which goes in helping the public sector). Previous research on the careers of social science graduates found that 3.5 years after graduation, 84% were in employment, compared to 78% of science graduates.

STEMming the flow

Two basic factors underlie the booming social sciences sector. First, the UK is essentially a services-based economy. Four fifths of economic value-added is now in services.

Social science disciplines connect closely with services industries in many different dimensions, while most of the efforts from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines in the UK are still trying to focus on a shrinking UK manufacturing base.

Some STEM research plays a key role in “productising” forms of services, such as websites which allow users to book flights without relying on travel agents, or devices that let people check their blood pressure at home without needing health professionals. But even here, social science knowledge is key in finding what does or does not work (for example, what types of people can or can’t reliably check their own blood pressure).

Second, we live now on a globalising and intensively investigated planet, where human-dominated systems (such as cities, markets, states, physical and digital networks) increasingly constitute the focus of many concerns. In studying these systems, social scientists are converging with the most applied STEM disciplines – especially medicine and health sciences, IT and software engineering.

Equally important has been the rising importance of social science in studying “human-influenced systems”, a broad category that now includes virtually all other processes across the globe. With rising human populations, almost everything earth-bound is now human-influenced. Think, for instance, of how even global climatic systems are responding to fossil fuel emissions, and of how closely any mitigation efforts depend on understanding social, political and economic dynamics.

The old polarisation of social science versus STEM disciplines is withering away fast. This change has accelerated recently as the social sciences in the digital era also incorporate and adapt key STEM science methods – such as analysing big data, using more randomised control trials and experiments, and more systematic review.

Yet there is still a key potential vulnerability. Both government and private sector and charity funding of research are still heavily skewed towards STEM sciences, which receive four-fifths of research funding, according to our research.

Estimated value of research grants and contracts to UK universities in 2010–11 Impact of the Social Sciences

The UK government has been in the grip of dated “techno-nationalist” misconceptions of the sources of economic progress. And the UK private sector focuses often on short-term “bottom-line” factors and things that give an individual comparative advantage to firms.

This is not an area where social science (with its collective-research progress mode) can offer “discovery” breakthroughs or patentable advances. As a result, the social sciences get just over a sixth of the amount of total research funding that goes into STEM.

Generous, secured funding means that over a third of the 67,000 STEM sciences researchers in the UK work in research-only jobs, where they can focus their whole energies and activity on advancing knowledge. By contrast only one in nine of the 30,000 social science researchers has a research-only job – the huge majority must combine research and teaching.

MOOCs are not the end

Some pessimistic observers have argued that the advent of massively open online courses (MOOCs) could begin to heavily erode the numbers of people involved in university teaching over the next decade. If this happened, it could hit STEM disciplines hard, where 65% of researchers also teach, but social sciences harder – because 89% of their researchers and departments rely on teaching for their basic incomes.

Yet the significance of MOOCs remains uncertain. Any MOOC effect is likely to be complex, focusing mainly at the sub-university level, likely to produce an upgrading of university start levels, and to actually result in more research-focused undergraduate learning than in the past.

Fundamentally, MOOC doom-merchants are operating with a non-dynamic model of what society needs and gets from education and research.

If we can begin to do simple things more cheaply and more quickly – for instance, draw demand and supply curves, or appreciate the difference between a mean and a mode – we will move on very fast to try and do vastly more complex things, which we hitherto accepted as beyond our control. That has been the number one lesson of the digital era, and it will continue to be true whatever the scale of MOOCs’ effects. In the contemporary development of human-dominated and human-influenced systems, the social sciences have a secure and increasingly salient role.

Watch a discussion of the book launch of The Impact of the Social Sciences on Google hangout.