The absence of senior social scientists
Skip to content

The absence of senior social scientists

Imagine the outcry there would be if the government announced that it was going to scrap the post of Chief Scientific Advisor - policy-makers would be effectively blind if they didn't have the best advice when tackling the problems such climate change, the leader writers would say.

But add the word "social" before "scientific" and you'll get the point I'd like to make about the absence of senior social scientists in government at the moment.

No senior social scientist

The Government scrapped the post of Chief Social Science Advisor in 2010, dividing the work between two officials, who have other roles.

At present there is no senior social scientific advisor, and very few of the 20 or so departmental scientific advisors are qualified social scientists with detailed knowledge of the research community and a standing with them.

To say this is not good enough is not to ignore or demean the two officials currently covering the role, or the Government Economic and Social Research Service or the Government Office for Science - fine work is done by all to provide the government with information and analysis on our society.

But this is not the same as having a social science expert in the most senior advisory roles within the government as a whole, with direct ministerial access.

Without this role, no government can be fully informed about the best policies to reduce crime, ensure social mobility and cohesion, run our cities, protect our countryside, get people to take climate change seriously, and much more.

Campaign for Social Science

That's why one of the central aims of the Campaign for Social Science is the restoration of the post of Chief Social Scientific Adviser.

We're delighted that our message is gaining support: for instance, last month Dr Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge and a powerful voice within his party on research, called for the post to be restored.

The Campaign gave evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology last year, and in February the Committee issued a report calling for, among other things, the restoration of the post.

It repeated that call in its report on behavioural change, released in July.

The case for restoration

The government, in responding to the Committee's reports, said that it is giving "careful consideration to the idea of a Chief Social Scientist alongside a range of different options for ensuring robust and independent social scientific advice.

This involves weighing up the potential benefits against the resource implications of different options." That weighing up is still going on.

The Campaign welcomes the government's consideration, but we say that the importance of the role clearly outweighs the relatively small savings made by removing it.

Social science affects so much policy and practice relating to how we live our lives that the case for restoration is straightforward and compelling.

Social science deals with issues of equal complexity and importance as pure science and covers as wide a range of subjects.

It's therefore just as important that its voice is heard at ministerial level. A government cannot function fully if it does not have the best advice, and that means putting social scientists in senior advisory roles.

The Campaign for Social Science was established by the Academy of Social Sciences to raise the profile of social science. A key objective of the Campaign is to create a popular vision of the impact of social science education and research.

(The views in this blog are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence)


Stephen Anderson