The value of the humanities and social sciences

This booklet has shown humanities and social science at work, describing how they can contribute to material progress, growth and innovation, cultural diversity, human well-being and understanding, and the functioning of a modern democratic state.

It has argued that this powerful national asset generates new ideas, provides intellectual rigour, offers longer-term perspectives, challenges received wisdoms, stimulates curiosity, and strengthens understanding of the multiple challenges facing us as individuals and as a society. As the humanities and social sciences take their place at the centre of a new, national conversation, we can start to understand what ‘prospering’ really means.

The theme ‘Prospering Wisely’ brings together these arguments and illustrations to emphasise the many ways in which the humanities and social sciences build up material progress, growth and innovation, while also viewing prosperity as wider than a purely economic measure. There are important ways in which scholarship can (and must) deny, disrupt and caution; that, too, is ‘functional’ in the broad sense. Democracy thrives on dissent; commercial opportunities often arise when we think most freely and creatively and leave conventional wisdoms behind. In a modern knowledge society, scholars and researchers are not confined to the universities. They are also creatively entangled with the worlds of business, politics and public management and business. In all directions markets and civil society increasingly depend on the knowledge and ideas they produce. ‘It is important to remind government, and those who allocate resources, just what a powerful resource we are; just how much our activities matter’, says Nicholas Stern.

The ‘mission’ of the humanities and social sciences is to strive to make sense of the world around us, to ‘put a bit of a pattern on your own experience’, as Peter Hennessy puts it. Quoting Einstein’s maxim ‘Never lose a holy curiosity’, he says ‘we exist to help take care of the curiosity of the species. If you have had the fires of curiosity lit inside your set of grey cells, it is a kind of sacred silken duty to pass it on. That is what gets us out of bed on a wet Monday in February. It is the spur and the spark.’ And he adds: ‘if you have uncurious people in authority, you are in trouble in a society.’

This thirst to enquire and seek answers stretches way beyond functional interventions and immediate impact. Hennessy puts it with typical bluntness: ‘like all the most important things in life it is beyond metrics.’ And, as Hazel Genn points out, ‘there are so many things we don’t even know about the world. We need to be helping the government to solve the challenges that we know about now, but also to be thinking forward, about the challenges that are coming up. If you only concentrate on what gives us an immediate payoff, it is very short-sighted. The problem with government is that they are usually thinking in three- to four-year terms. We are the people who are going to still be there doing the research when this particular lot of politicians have gone and somebody else is coming in.’ And, as John Kay emphasises, this is no less true as an indictment of many aspects of business and financial activity.

Governments, rightly, demand accountability. But any assessment of effect or ‘impact’ has to fit the nature of work that (says Jonathan Bate) often concerns the messy, debatable, unquantifiable but essentially human dimensions of life, including imagination, faith, truth, and goodness. Nor can the terms for assessments be too narrow, Kay adds. ‘It’s defining the ideas that make our society function, and that is what people studying the humanities for the last two thousand years have enabled us to do. That argument needs to be understood by people who have a rather limited concept of economic value and the ways in which value is created.’ Narrow, short-sighted accountability, as Onora O’Neill has shown,  O’Neill, Reith Lectures, op. cit.can undermine the activities under examination and democratic processes; more thoughtful and enlightened notions of the subject, and of the meaning of accountability, can enhance both.

The moral philosopher and former economist Professor John Broome FBA stresses that constant revision and intellectual adaptation are central to the humanities and social sciences. Good health, in our disciplines, he says, is about ‘working up and knocking down arguments, going back to principles time and again’. That is one of the most important ways in which they contribute to a healthy society. It is also vital to acknowledge their normative and moral purposes. As Diarmaid MacCulloch says, the task of getting the story right is an ethical obligation. ‘The sciences can tell us wonderful things about how to heal illness, how to cure particular sorts of malaise, but it is the humanities, it is the social sciences that talk about the malaise in society and explain the mysterious ways in which human beings behave to one another. They are not susceptible to being put into formulae or mathematical assemblages. They are that mysterious thing, human nature: that’s what we deal with. If you don’t have a healthy humanities and social sciences sector, your country will go mad.’ The difficulty in ‘nailing something down’ as ‘meaning precisely X’ does not lead us away from rigour or measurement; it makes us think more deeply about the issues we examine.

By most measures, the humanities and social sciences in the UK (rivalled only by the USA) lead the world. Yet they are still an underprized asset in many of the corridors of Whitehall, Westminster and what was Fleet Street. Not all historians write best sellers and make television series; not all sociologists produce reports that governments act on; not all economists regularly contribute op-ed pieces to the Financial Times. More of the enormous reservoir of expertise which these few examples illustrate could and should inhabit and be heard in government, and be more visible to the public. Humanities and social science scholars have to keep trying to speak intelligibly, to write well, to translate and unpack, maximising the public value of their work by sharing their insights with the widest possible audiences, using every mode of communication.

John Kay, who has moved between universities and business, regrets that academics can still be ‘snooty about the idea of communicating or getting your name in the newspapers’. Mary Beard agrees. ‘There is tremendous fear that somehow, if you move outside proper academic modes of dissemination, it is dumbing down. But people do not want to be dumbed down to, they are not stupid. I have been privileged, because I have found a position in which I can talk, and people will take notice, whether to agree or disagree.’ And while academics like herself may be the ones in the limelight, she stresses their inter-dependency with those tunnelling the archives, and publishing in academic journals. We must never forget the people ‘who sit in the library, year after year, and work out what Thucydides was trying to say. They provide many of the most important discoveries.’

What is encouraging are the growing signs that academics and policy-makers are strengthening their engagement with one another – as, in a small way, the programme of British Academy Policy Forums helps demonstrate. On a larger scale, the involvement of the Economic and Social Research Council in Government’s 2013 ‘What Works’ initiative – which aims to help guide decision-making in tackling crime, promoting active and independent ageing, effective early intervention, and fostering local economic growth – illustrates a welcome recognition of the value of robust research evidence in policy-making.  See the Economic and Social Research Council’s website.

See also the newly published monograph The Impact of The Social Sciences: How Academics and Their Research Make a Difference, by LSE academics Simon Bastow, Jane Tinkler and Patrick Dunleavy, London, 2014

The edifice of knowledge is never complete. Today’s work rests on – at the same time as it revises – yesterday’s; that in turn is its fate tomorrow. For Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare is both a midpoint and a living, changing reference. He is often venerated as the father figure, the place to begin, although he built on Chaucer and much other earlier literature. Shakespeare too has been constantly reinvented, revived and in turn had a shaping influence as the inspiration for so much later creativity. ‘So he is genuinely a figure who is constantly changing. But he’s a figure who, in his work – and in the story of the reinventions of his work – enables us to connect the past, the present and the future.’

Apprehending the condition of people is one of the many things that Shakespeare – both the ‘original’ and the ‘revised’ – is all about, says Nicholas Stern, ‘telling us what people want, what they do and trying to understand and celebrate some of the mysteries.’ He adds: ‘We have to take the concept of prosperity beyond income or consumption or material wealth. Much more than that, it is how we live, how we manage and live with uncertainty and anxiety. We must recognise both that insecurity and worry can make us less prosperous, and that uncertainty is a part of and sometimes the spice of life. The humanities and social sciences help us understand what prosperity means, and how it can be fostered, individually, in a community and in the world. That is one of the crucial reasons they matter so much, and why they are so important now.’