Include humanities and social sciences in research and development evidence base to foster innovation, the British Academy argues

28 Jul 2023

A new British Academy briefing outlines policy recommendations to harness the contributions of SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy), alongside STEM, to the UK’s research and development (R&D) ecosystem.

“Understanding SHAPE in R&D: Bridging the evidence gap” explores business understanding of R&D and innovation activities, variations by sector, and international comparisons with the UK's approach to R&D. Through case studies from industry giants like Tesco and Accenture, the briefing highlights the significance of SHAPE disciplines in UK research and innovation.

The accompanying reports from Frontier Economics – The Role of SHAPE in R&D and Innovation: Case studies – and RAND Europe – Understanding Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts for People and the Economy (SHAPE) R&D in the UK and Internationally – examine the evidence in greater detail, emphasising the central role of SHAPE disciplines in enhancing the UK's strengths in science, technology, finance and innovation. The reports showcase examples such as the innovative CGI techniques used in the Netflix film Midnight Sky, and the use of geographers and economists to understand customer behaviour at Tesco.

However, UK policy, and the ways in which we collect R&D data, does not comprehensively reflect the R&D activities which take place across the country. To mitigate this, the British Academy suggests a range of measures, including adopting a people-centric approach to R&D, which recognises and measures human capital within the UK’s R&D ecosystem, to provide vital insights for R&D policymakers in Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), His Majesty’s Treasury (HMT) and His Majesty’s Revenue and Customers (HMRC).

President of the British Academy Professor Julia Black, Strategic Director of Innovation and Professor of Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

"Current statistics on UK R&D often fail to recognise activities which use the insights of the social sciences, humanities and the arts, in particular the role that people play in both R&D and innovation. Broadening R&D data collection should provide a more nuanced evidence base, enabling Government to better understand the breadth of R&D activity which takes place, particularly in the service sector and the creative industries, and to identify better methods to support it for the benefit of society, the economy and the environment."

The Academy also recommends:

  • The newly formed DSIT takes a clear leadership role on this issue within government and sets out an agenda for how to address and fill critical gaps in the evidence base
  • The creation of better mechanisms and research environments for academics to exchange ideas with businesses, akin to the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Transforming Business Initiative and the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre
  • DSIT retain the target of 3% of GDP investment in R&D.

The Academy has a long history of work on research and innovation and its continued work aims to improve understandings of how R&D investment and activity takes place throughout the economy.

Andrew Leicester, Associate Director in the Public Policy practice at Frontier Economics, said:

"It’s clear from the innovation leads we spoke with across the UK service sector that innovation is fundamental to business, and that a focus on scientific R&D does not tell the innovation story for the sector. The role that human-focussed SHAPE insights play in particular in helping service businesses understand and meet their customers’ needs is a critical part of the process, and only getting more important in a period of rapid change where understanding of the human and societal aspects of new technologies will be essential.

"We hope that the policy recommendations in our report can support a fresh conversation between government, business and academia on the UK’s ongoing need to facilitate innovation in the service sector given its importance to the UK economy, and to take a holistic view of how all types of research can support this."

Susan Guthrie, Director of Science and Emerging Technology at RAND Europe, said: 

"Understanding the extent and importance of SHAPE R&D to UK business is critical in enabling effective strategic planning in terms of skills needs across a range of policy areas from education to immigration. Given the range and nature of contributions that SHAPE graduates can make to R&D activity across sectors, and the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of much business R&D, a person-centred approach analysing the role and movement of people and their skills and capabilities may provide a useful lens to analyse this topic."

Contact the press office

For further information contact the Press Office on [email protected]  / 07500 010 432.

Sign up to our email newsletters