From education to employment

New report showcases vital role of social sciences in the UK private sector

Campaign for Social Science

Social science knowledge and skills are essential to business operations and development in a wide range of business sectors in the UK, according to a new report by the Campaign for Social Science (@CfSocialScience) and @SAGE_Publishing 

Based on in-depth interviews with business leaders at Cisco, Deloitte, Royal Dutch Shell,  Willis-Re, WSP and more, the report’s findings reveal that employees with social science training are often the operational enablers keeping businesses afloat – HR, accounting, finance, marketing and legal – and play key roles in facilitating and increasing business growth, product development, risk management and strategic planning.

Social sciences encompass a broad spectrum of disciplines that systematically use data, research and analysis of people, societies and economies to understand the human world, the human response to global challenges, and the drivers for local and global economic development. They include subjects such as economics, social psychology, business studies, political science, sociology, geography, management, education and law.

As the need for a post-pandemic economic recovery strategy becomes ever more urgent, and as government considers future and higher education, insights from Vital Business: The Essential Role of Social Sciences in the UK Private Sector are both timely and apt.  Above all, the report demonstrates that social science subjects are vital for business and should be both welcomed and supported by government in the education system at school and university, alongside STEM disciplines, as essential to the workforce of today and tomorrow.

In their own words business leaders at large multinational corporations, medium-sized enterprises and smaller firms, including manufacturing, digital, financial services, retail and the extractive sector, provide illuminating perspectives on the use and value of social sciences knowledge and skills to their businesses. Important commonalities across different markets and sectors emerged.

Many company directors revealed that social science knowledge and expertise is key to understanding market opportunities and constraints and assists with predictions of current and future consumer behaviours. Social scientist employees also help to hone business acumen through risk management and analysis and by devising long term commercial strategies. As part of multi-disciplinary teams collaborating with STEM and digital sciences, social science employees are key to product development and innovation and for devising new ways of working.

This includes modelling consumer take up and user experience for new products, technological systems and services, and helping companies develop a deeper understanding of the social and ethical impacts of their activities.

Almost all companies we interviewed noted social science knowledge and expertise as especially important for leadership roles. In addition to their curiosity and understanding of people and their range of behaviours, substantive qualifications or training in economics or management were viewed as highly desirable for leading people and complex organisations.

Ashley Parry Jones, Director of Planning at global engineering consultancy WSP, which employs several hundred social scientists in the UK alone, emphasised the complementarity of the relationship between social scientists and engineers, which enables the firm to take the best decisions. He said:

“As an engineering consultancy, WSP has many projects that will be more engineering led, but social scientists play an essential role in providing challenge and ensure solutions are applicable in a real-world situation. They provide a different voice and a different way of thinking. Engineers work to establish technical standards. Whereas social scientists are optimizers – it’s not about perfection, but about an optimal decision that satisfies multiple parameters at once. That is a very different type of conversation, and I think that is a really useful challenge that social scientists provide.”

Underlining the significance of the report’s publication during a time of economic uncertainty, Professor Roger Goodman, President of the Academy for Social Sciences said:

“As the UK is confronted with the deepest economic recession for 40 years, the messages in Vital Business provide an important opportunity for UK policymakers, captains of business and leaders across higher education to take stock of the wide range of social science skills and expertise that will be required for Britain’s economy to bounce back in the short term, and remain competitive on the world stage long into the future.”

Lord Jo Johnson drew attention to findings within the report which highlight the ways in which multi-disciplinary knowledge and expertise help businesses to thrive. He said:

“This excellent report rightly highlights how unhelpful it is for policymakers to think in terms of a simplistic STEM/non-STEM divide in assessing the usefulness of knowledge and skills in the private sector.“At a time when companies in every sector of the economy require more and deeper cross disciplinary working, the need for traditional ‘science’ (STEM) disciplines to work in teams with social scientists and skilled creative industries professionals has never been clearer.”

Welcoming the first-hand insights captured from senior directors within the report, outlining why social sciences are vital to their businesses, Lord David Willetts, President of the Advisory Council and Intergenerational Centre at the Resolution Foundation said:

 “This report shows how important social science is for business as it provides the tools for understanding human behaviour. One of the great strengths of our research base is that we are world class in so many different disciplines and we must maintain this extraordinary range.”

 Will Hutton, Observer Columnist and Co-Chair of the Purposeful Company commented on  the intrinsic value of the report, as well as the findings within it showing how social scientists across disciplines with qualitative and quantitative skills are essential for businesses to succeed.  He said:

“This unique report – itself testimony to the value of a social scientific approach in the way it has inquired into firms’ business processes  – is an important counterweight to the prevailing wisdom that all matters in business is mastery of STEM skills and subjects. Great businesses need very much more.”

Finally, also welcoming the report’s publication, Dame Margaret Hodge DBE, Labour MP for Barking, urged business leaders and policymakers to read it and take note. She said:

“This vital report by the Campaign for Social Science demonstrates how these disciplines sit right at the heart of decision-making in the private sector. Senior figures in all walks of life would do well to read this analysis and take notice.’

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