Sunday, March 22, 2015

JOHN HOLMWOOD - Social Science Incorporated

The neoliberal approach to higher education is turning social science academics into brand managers and commercial researchers.

The ‘politics of austerity’ in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 and the election of the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010 produced drastic cuts to public spending. It has involved the re-assertion of neo-liberal policies whose application to the financial sector had created the crisis in the first place. One consequence is the dismantling of public higher education in England, with the removal of all direct funding of undergraduate degree programmes in arts, humanities and the social sciences and the creation of a supposed ‘level-playing field’ to allow for-profit providers to compete for students.
This has led to the dramatic attenuation of the democratic functions of universities and consolidated the growth of a neo-liberal knowledge regime marked by increased managerialism, the growth of an ‘audit culture’ and performance management of teaching and research. In a new competitive environment, the university is seen by its managers as a ’brand’ to be promoted and protected. For the most part, attention has been on the consequences for teaching – the transformation of students into consumers – and the external assessment of research: game-playing in the REF and the displacement of the substance of research into the maximisation of scores on performance indicators of ‘excellence’ and ‘impact’. 
But something else is now emerging as part of this neo-liberal knowledge regime, namely, the ‘brand management’ and incorporation of social science itself. This is evident in a recent report, The Business of People, produced by the Campaign for Social Sciences. The Campaign was initiated by the Academy of Social Sciences, which is made up of 1000 fellows and 47 member learned societies (part of what the report calls the “soft power” of Britain), in turn encompassing 90,000 social scientists. Just how does it represent the social sciences and whose values does it promote?
The report is overwhelmingly instrumental and designed to appeal to the “Treasury, ministers, MPs and policy makers” (Foreword). Its focus on policymakers and practitioners is unremitting: “Advancing and applying science depends on profits, policies, markets, organisations and attitudes” (Executive summary). The attitudes of the public, on the other hand, are presented as potential obstacles to policy objectives. For example, it argues that “study of public values and attitudes is vital, too, especially when innovation prompts uncertainties and concerns, as with genetically modified crops or shale gas extraction” (page 6). And it warns that “without a better grasp of people, technological advances may be frustrated, or blocked, and fail to realise their potential” (page 5).
The report emphasises interdisciplinary approaches and returns frequently to this topic. In a separate comment in response to criticisms of the report, the Director of the Campaign has stated that the report does not specify particular modes of interdisciplinarity, but that they could include “critical sociologists working with anthropologists, philosophers working with synthetic biologists, educationalist working with neuroscientists, or historians working with political scientists.” In nearly all instances, however, what is emphasised is links across the social sciences, natural sciences and engineering, or across bio-sciences and social sciences. Indeed, its call for a 10% increase in funding in real terms is specifically attached to interdisciplinary research in social sciences, natural sciences and engineering. Only one reference is made to the humanities, but, once again, it is the indispensability of cross-disciplinary,problem-focussed research (page 7) that is stressed, as it is in all cases. Towards the end of the report it seems to belie this dominant emphasis by defining the social sciences as “disciplined curiosity”, but immediately this is qualified as “applied curiosity”.
The language of the report is a particularly narrow version of the ‘impact agenda’ where all publicly-funded research is to have users in mind, with commercial beneficiaries, policy-makers and practitioners foremost. Researchers are recommended to engage with potential users at the earliest stages of research, including that of its design and seek to maximise its subsequent impact with them. This is what makes research problem-focussed, where just what constitutes a problem should be co-defined with users.
This undermines both the critical functions of research and its independence. Research councils like the ESRC are increasingly setting research priorities determined by the Department for Business, Innovation and Science that provides its block grant of funding – for example, on ‘big data’ or the application of neuroscience to social problems.. read more: