Does Whitehall need a chief social scientist?

logoThe Academy of Social Science has proposed reintroducing the post of Chief Social Scientist in government. In an article for Modest Proposals (15 August 2012) I argued this could lead to better policy-making.

Most people would be surprised, disappointed or even thoroughly infuriated if they found out the government didn’t have a chief scientific adviser. In these days of climate change, flu epidemics and rapid technological advancement, it would be very odd if the government wasn’t being advised at the highest level by someone possessing outstanding scientific understanding and experience.

Rest assured: government is all set for advice on the physical sciences. Even local authorities are now seeing fit to appoint chief scientific advisers, as they have in Southampton. But what of social science? Here the news is more concerning. At present the government does not have a chief social scientist – and the Academy of Social Science is campaigning to have one appointed.

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Social science is just as integral as physical science in addressing the problems we face as a society. A stagnant or shrinking economy, crime, poor educational outcomes, bad dietary habits, long-term worklessness, even disengagement  from the democratic process – name any problem, and you can be sure there’s a social science discipline examining it earnestly.

As with another recent modest proposal, to establish a NICE for social policy, this proposal is about helping government make better policy decisions, informed by robust evidence. This is not to say that a chief social scientist would be able to provide expert advice on every issue – specialists are required for that purpose. Rather, this proposal is about making the machinery of government work more effectively, and raising the status of evidence in the policy process.

The government already commissions and utilises a vast amount of social science research, and directly employs a large number of social scientists, notably in Government Social Research and the Government Economic Service.  But there is a lack of coherence to these arrangements, and they are not led by social scientists themselves.

One only has to look at the Behavioural Insights Team at the Cabinet Office – the so-called Nudge Unit, after the influential book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Here evidence in an area of social science (behavioural economics) is being developed and disseminated by one bit of Whitehall. Ideally this activity should be integrated with other evidence development across Whitehall, and overseen in a coherent way to ensure the government has fully rounded advice, but that is not necessarily the case.

A recent House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report – looking at policy on behavioural change – also picked up on how there is a lack of social science advice at the most senior level.  Departments all have chief scientific advisers, but these people can hardly be expected to distil research findings from fields they do not belong to and have few professional links with.

Would the costs of this proposal be too high? As well as the salary of a chief social scientist, I can imagine a mini-bureaucracy would need to be created around him/her if this appointment was made. But surely this cost would pale into comparison with the benefits of better policy. For instance, if the postholder can help ensure employment policy better utilises the evidence on how to get people into work, there could be significant savings for the welfare bill.

Perhaps the inherent contestability of social science itself is the best argument against this proposal. While the physical sciences are of course full of theoretical divides, they maintain a founding principle: the objective search for truth. While there are disagreements, the concept of scientific consensus allows government scientists to provide advice without too much partiality.

Social science doesn’t really work like that – if anything, its founding principle is contestability. Using Nudge as an example again, one only needs to look at some of the criticism of Thaler and Sunstein’s work to see that. Can a chief social scientist be expected to present a balanced view to ministers?

However, contestability cannot be an excuse for not trying. Indeed, the fact that social science can be so contested makes it all the more important for government to do what it can to hear different sides of an argument. And furthermore, beyond theoretical divisions there are fundamental principles of research design that can and should be applied in all social science research – an adviser can recognise if policy is based on well-designed research.

Image: Cécile Duteille

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