Who can save the world? The vital role of the social sciences in addressing the current the current threats and opportunities facing society
By Professor Jonathan Michie, co-editor with Sir Cary Cooper of Why the Social Sciences Matter and the forthcoming 2nd edition.
As humanity develops, with enhanced technologies to support us, and our global community progresses over time, with reductions in global poverty, we might expect the world’s problems to now be diminishing. Instead, we face a tsunami of global crises. The climate crisis threatens the future of human life on earth. Pandemics are predicted to become more common and potentially more deadly. Antibiotic resistance also poses devastating threats. Current migration crises will get worse rather than better as a result. The causes of the 2007-2009 international financial crisis and global recession have not been solved; on the contrary, the increased inequality of income, wealth, geography and power have intensified. Scientific advance, on which we might rely, is creating artificial intelligence and robotics that seem out of control, from threatening the world of work to taking over military conflicts – with potentially devastating thermonuclear war, should the control systems pass to machines, which the increasing speed of nuclear missiles may provoke. The systems of education and democracy on which we might rely in face of such crises are themselves being undermined by austerity, fake news, and the rise of the demagogues. Not surprising, perhaps, that we also face a mental health crisis, particularly amongst the young.
Many do despair in face of these seemingly intractable problems, some being reluctant to have children when this is the future in which the next generation would have to live and die.
Great work is being done to tackle these crises. Vaccines were developed against covid-19. Agreements have been reached to limit climate change, and ways are being developed to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it. Scientific advance remains crucial, but on its own is not enough. As well as scientific methods of extracting and storing carbon, we need the political agreements, the legislation and regulation, the change in human behaviours, the shift in managerial decision making; in short, we need the social sciences. In tackling pandemics, we need the vaccines, but we also need trust in government, and appropriate social responses. Migration is here to stay and needs to be understood and managed. The causes of global financial crises need to be tackled, as does inequality of income, wealth, geography and power. All this depends on the social sciences – economics, politics, sociology, geography, psychology, and the study of behavioural change in society, and of companies
We need scientific advance. But the AI, robots, driverless cars and the rest need to be adopted for social benefit; this requires the social sciences.
As the then President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Anne McLaren, argued:
“There is a growing realisation that much of social science relies heavily on the backing of natural science, and much of natural science only makes sense in the context of social science.”1
The social sciences are vital for tackling the world’s problems. As social scientists we need to make this case more effectively than we have succeeded in doing thus far.
But we also need to put our own house in order. As Queen Elizabeth II asked at the London School of Economics, after being given an explanation on the origins of the international financial crisis, “Why did nobody notice it?”.2 We social scientists need to do a better job than we have so far at avoiding international financial crises; at preventing unwarranted inequalities of income, wealth, geography and power; and in playing our part in tackling all the crises we now face.
That last point leads onto another: what’s needed is often collaboration across and between disciplines. We need multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary working. That means working across the social sciences – and also beyond the social sciences. This is not easy. It requires listening and learning, and as a result adapting how we ourselves conceptualise problems. It is a skill that needs to be taught.
When it is blindingly obvious that what is needed is interdisciplinary working, it is frustrating to hear politicians promoting the ‘STEM’ subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This demonstrates that work is still needed, in explaining the need for social science alongside other disciplines. Perhaps in certain extreme situations it might be right to focus on the STEM subjects to the detriment of others, for example during the Second World War at Bletchley Park when Alan Turing and colleagues were trying to break codes, and were developing the world’s first electronic programmable computer – Colossus – to assist in these endeavours. Perhaps then one would focus solely on STEM subjects. Fortunately for us, in those days they were not so narrow minded. They hired the best people from across the disciplines. I should declare an interest: my father Donald Michie was one of those codebreakers, diverted to Bletchley from Balliol College Oxford where he had been headed with an Open Entrance Scholarship in Classics; and one of the women codebreakers, Joan Thirsk, became a Fellow of my College, once she’d left Bletchley and become a renowned social and economics historian.
This need for the full range of academic disciplines, including crucially the social sciences, was demonstrated by the range of authors in Why the Social Sciences Matter. The need is greater than ever. This will, we trust, be shown convincingly in the forthcoming Second Edition of Why the Social Sciences Matter, by leading social scientists addressing the above crises, and how they can be tackled.
Jonathan Michie OBE FAcSS is Professor of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Oxford, UK, where he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor (without portfolio), President of Kellogg College, and an Honorary Norham Fellow in the Department of Education. Professor Michie is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and was awarded an OBE for his services to education and lifelong learning. He is also Managing Editor of ‘International Review of Applied Economics’, Chair of the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning (UALL), an Honorary Professor of Economics in the Education Department of the University of Nottingham, and Senior Fellow of Rutgers University, USA. His many published works include: Why the Social Sciences Matter (2015), Advanced Introduction to Globalisation (2017), The Oxford Handbook of Mutual, Co-operative, and Co-owned Business (2017), The Handbook of Globalisation 3rd Edition (2019) Capitalism: An Unsustainable Future? (2022) and The Political Economy of Covid-19 (2022).
1. Anne McLaren, ‘That’s interesting, science is exiting’, The Independent, 4th September 1994.
2. 4th November 2008.