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Delivering civic value to communities – the impact of UK universities’ social science research

  • 6 March 2024
  • By Ed Bridges
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Dr. Ed Bridges, Head of Policy & Public Affairs at the Academy of Social Sciences.

UK universities have increasingly had to speak the language of ‘impact’, which has become another addition to the sector’s lexicon of buzzwords. For researchers, the REF exercise is about much more than just impact: it has become an important frame for discussion. A recent report commissioned by the British Academy and the Academy of Social Sciences unpacks this idea of impact for the disciplines we represent, and its findings are timely and telling.

Within the social sciences specifically, which forms the focus of this blog, the report’s findings emphasise very clearly the strength and breadth of the UK’s social science research base. It isn’t a new claim that the UK’s social sciences are world-leading (buzzword alert again!), but what is laid bare by the data in the report and the accompanying dashboard is that this strength is spread across university social science schools and departments in the whole of the UK. Each has compelling examples of local, civic impact which are making communities better, reducing inequalities, delivering value for money and serving governments well in their policy agendas.

Just to pick out a few notable examples:

  • A 20-year research programme on the synergies between teaching, learning and playing led to educational reform for all 4-6-year-old children in Northern Ireland (NI) affecting 720,000 children since 2015.
  • Research outlining the prevalence, impact and prevention of hate crime formed the primary source of information for the Welsh Government’s Framework for Action on Tackling Hate Crime (2014). Researcher-developed technologies were also embedded within the National Cyber Hate Crime Hub (run by the UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council), better equipping policymakers and police to address the problem.
  • Research on child poverty led to changes in legislation and local authority policies in Scotland. As a direct result, approximately 120,000 children annually who are living in poverty across Scotland now have access to a £100 school clothing grant. Several local authorities also have access to free meals in breakfast clubs and during school holidays.
  • Social prescribing (SP) is a community-based approach to health and care which aims to tackle health inequalities by addressing social determinants and broader wellbeing in disadvantaged communities. Based on research evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of SP, NHS England invested £35m in local SP services, including £3m per year in Rotherham alone. 900,000 people per year will be referred to SP schemes, reducing the cost-burden of long-term health conditions on NHS England.

All of these are valuable first-hand examples of social science research making a tangible difference to communities – improving the educational experience of children, combatting hate crime, helping children living in poverty, and boosting health outcomes. At a time when universities are under greater pressure than ever to deliver civic value, our social science research base is providing answers.

What’s more, the social sciences are doing all of those things whilst also delivering value for the public purse. Despite having relatively modest levels of research income, Panel C (social sciences) contributed the highest number of impact case studies in the REF 2021 exercise, over a third of the total. This is consistent with research last year from RAND which also examined the impact of REF 2021. Their data indicated that across the four biggest areas of beneficiary – governments, communities, policymakers and practitioners – the greatest contribution came from Panel C (social sciences); social science research also made major contributions towards the public, children, schools and NGOs. Again, none of this should be a surprise – a cursory glance at the UK Government’s website listing its Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) shows that social science insights are essential to good governance. And as we have recently emphasised, even research in traditional STEM areas still often benefits from the lens of social science to transform it into something which society can utilise.

In an election year, when there is so much focus on the mechanisms which can improve the communities around us, and help address inequalities, this report is a vital reminder that social scientists in UK universities have a pivotal role to play.

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1 comment

  1. A really interesting and up lifting read; thank you. Some important reminders on how the benefits of UK universities’ research can have positive impacts across the reach of civic life and well-being.

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