By Lord Stern of Brentford,
President of the British Academy

‘Prosperity’. What does it mean, and how can it be fostered? How can people and communities have the opportunity to prosper, in the sense expressed by Amartya Sen, of expanding their capabilities ‘to lead the kind of lives they value, and have reason to value’?  A. Sen, Development As Freedom, New York, 1999, page 18

Nick SternOur times confront us with tough choices, as societies, as economies, and as individuals. To understand challenges which include an ageing population, migration, sustaining the environment and managing climate change, we require conceptual clarity and impartial, evidence-based research and analysis, together with open-mindedness and creativity in exploring new ideas. This is precisely what research and scholarship in humanities and social sciences do. The quest for a better, deeper, more valuable life has always been at their heart. They seek to illuminate the human condition and explain how economies, cultures and societies function. In addition to the intrinsic value of this quest, the insights it generates can guide – and promote – reasoned political and public discourse, by bringing fresh knowledge and ideas to the fore.

The UK’s deep reservoir of research and expertise across these disciplines – from history to psychology, economics to law, literature to philosophy and languages to archaeology – is a national asset which informs and enlarges our understanding and decision-making. It is driven by a desire to examine and explain human behaviour and aspirations: to understand empirically how and where society is functioning and malfunctioning; to explore the ethical foundations of decision-making and its underlying assumptions; to seek to learn from history; to scrutinise how evidence supports or undermines policy options; to analyse the drivers and implications of a changing world economy and polity, and how different societies and cultures interact. It encompasses all of the elements that make for ‘a good life’ and a healthy society.

Alongside the complementary and similarly essential disciplines of science, engineering and medicine, the humanities and social sciences are vital drivers of human progress. They provide the rigorous scrutiny and insights, the ideas and the long-term thinking that can and should have a profound influence on social and cultural well-being, on a modern economy driven by knowledge and innovation, and, ultimately, on our place and reputation in the world. A society without thriving social sciences and humanities risks achieving at best only an arid kind of prosperity, far less rich than our creative human culture deserves – and at worst confusion, apathy, decline and conflict.

As my predecessor as British Academy President, Sir Adam Roberts, observes, ‘I do not know of a single major problem that we face, be it the environment, how to get economic growth started again, or how to reconstruct business in an era where we are past the stage of heavy reliance on industrial manufacture, that does not require attention both from the physical sciences and from social sciences and humanities.’

The crucible for creating ideas and understanding, and developing learning and expertise here in the UK is in our universities, hugely respected throughout the world. Humanities and social sciences are taught by 65,000 academic staff (more than a third of the total, and around half of all active researchers). One million UK undergraduates study them (46 per cent of the total) together with some 60 per cent of all postgraduates; and most leaders in public life – government, business and the voluntary sector – were educated in these disciplines. They also attract some 250,000 overseas students annually (nearly 60 per cent of the total), making vital contributions to the future of our international relationships and to our economy. All figures are sourced from HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) published data for the academic year 2011/12 and the REF Survey of Submission Intentions, published by HEFCE, January 2013

The kind of economy the UK now has, and shares with more and more of the developed world, depends on the fuel of creativity, knowledge and skills from social science and the humanities, just as it needs capital resources and equipment. This ‘fuel’ helps achieve growth that can renew and adapt – by driving innovation, by challenging, by questioning and by offering up new ideas. It is central to one of the fastest growing sectors, the cultural, creative and digital industries, which Government estimates as accounting for at least 8 per cent of GDP. But that is just one part of the economy where these disciplines matter. ONS recorded the size of the UK service sector as 77.8% of GDP in April 2013.

The proportion that can accurately be allocated to the creative, cultural and digital industries is statistically elusive. The 8% government estimate is quoted by Jeremy Warner, Daily Telegraph, 3 March 2011.

DCMS figures also indicate that the sector accounts for some two million jobs and is worth over £36bn a year.

More than three-quarters of the UK economy is now in services, which flourish by employing people with knowledge and skills from the humanities and social sciences – skills of critical analysis, problem solving, negotiation and communication, teaching and listening, and speaking other languages. And these contributions go far beyond sectors classified as ‘services’, into companies in manufacturing or natural resources. An oil company, for example, needs the skills of geologists and engineers but, just as important to its ability to function successfully, it also needs skilled human capital and specific sector skills in a range of other areas. These include international relations, political economy, law, marketing, finance, management (particularly of risk), geography and logistics, the history, culture and languages of places where it produces and sells, and so on. In this booklet we illustrate the humanities and social sciences at work: how academics are using their research, insights and expertise to improve people’s well-being, in the UK and internationally. We describe how their work helps sustain the political and legal frameworks that protect a healthy, politically engaged democracy. Occasionally, this requires challenging and serious questioning of existing ideas and structures, or of the powerful. And we give examples of how understanding, knowledge and new ideas can inform and influence public policy and help bring about change.

Prospering Wisely contains contributions drawn from longer interviews with some of the UK’s leading academics, all Fellows of the British Academy (FBAs), which offer illustrations of the great potential of informed public reasoning in action.

The British Academy’s Fellows embody and represent the very best of academic life in the humanities and social sciences. Their work spans a rich diversity of fields which, together, make a huge contribution to our national life. Some of this world-class research is carried out by teams of researchers, but much comes from the commitment and talent of individuals, building on a rich legacy of scholarship stretching back through decades and often centuries.

Academics and politicians have a shared responsibility to use this knowledge and understanding to help create an intellectual atmosphere in which more people, especially the young, feel moved to contribute. Their involvement matters, not only because of their talent, energy and ideas, but also because it is their futures at stake. The revolution in communications and social media has created unprecedented opportunities for interactive public discourse. Yet the Hansard Society’s annual survey of voter engagement in 2012 reported finding ‘a disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged public, turning away from politics. Across almost every area of engagement examined by the audit trends were downward, in many instances to the lowest levels ever recorded.’ The 2013 report confirmed that this was not a blip: it found that just 41 per cent of the adult population would be certain to vote in an immediate general election and for 18-24 year olds that figure was just 12 per cent. These figures reinforce the impression that the public political arena – the quality and quantity of questioning, and the serious discussion of evidence – is shrinking before our eyes.

We have, in my view, reached a position which is potentially of great historical significance. We are witnessing a decline in confidence, and sometimes a growing mistrust, not only in political processes and politicians, but in social institutions such as the media and journalism, the police and religious organisations. Inequality is rising on many crucial dimensions. We have, for many, a confusion or anxiety around moral or social values, and community or individual identity. In my own subject of economics, we have less confidence in our ability to understand processes of growth, employment and change. We must seek growth that is sustainable in relation to our natural environment. And these difficulties are not confined to our own country; they are reflected in many societies, rich and poor, around the world. These difficulties affect us all, from young people looking for work, to older people worried about the future of their healthcare.

If we, as a society, cannot put this process into reverse, we will all be the losers. We need a new kind of national conversation, and the voice of the humanities and social sciences must be at its centre. Our researchers and scholars help delineate the choices we confront as a society and as individuals, and how best to respond. They help make the complex intelligible, and help us understand human values and possibilities. Their business is to challenge and question, and their challenges are sometimes awkward and  difficult for those in authority. They demand rigour and honesty, they force alternative ethical or social perspectives into the open. The British Academy has a key role in a new national conversation that can strengthen public discussion and help us understand better the meaning of prosperity, and identify pathways to greater prosperity, in all its dimensions.

We have chosen the title Prospering Wisely to underline how the humanities and social sciences can help shape our standard of living and further our quality of life. Prosperity by itself is not enough: it must be married with wisdom. In a complex modern society, we need to think and understand in a way that is open, creative and rigorous. And we must talk to each other in a reasoned, reflective and careful way. We hope this booklet helps to show how a wise understanding of prosperity can deepen and broaden well-being across our society, help us think about and tackle the great challenges of our times, and give us valuable insight into our lives and communities.


In this booklet we use the terms ‘prosperity’ and ‘well-being’ in a wide sense, embracing the range of human and social functioning – usage that derives ultimately from the ancient Greek notion of human flourishing, or eudaimonia, and which has been given systematic development by economists, psychologists and others.

The three chapters that follow focus in turn on distinct aspects of prosperity: firstly, understanding the meaning of, measuring and seeking to foster fuller, better lives; secondly, nurturing a healthy, open democracy; and finally, continuing to encourage inventiveness, fresh thinking and the growth of knowledge. In each case we illustrate the powerful contribution made by the humanities and social sciences. The views expressed here are not a single voice and not a ‘position’ of the British Academy. Some may be controversial, for which no apology is needed; as we argue here, lively debate and disagreement is an indispensible part of a rich and healthy intellectual life.