If we are to create new technologies and innovations that benefit all of society and the planet, we must embed social science early in our research and development.
From tackling climate change, to improving public health, all global challenges have society at their core. It is vital that we understand society and human behaviour if our scientific and technological discoveries and innovations are to improve the world we live in. To create the greatest possible impact through our discoveries, science and social sciences must work in harmony. CP Snow asserted that the inability of the ‘two cultures’ of science and the humanities and social sciences to work in collaboration significantly limits the ability of society to address the world’s great problems. While such collaborations are now much more commonplace, the further intertwining of these ‘cultures’ will strengthen our ability to make the world a better place for all.
The UK government’s drive to expand STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) skills successfully brought the term into common parlance and the value of STEM research is widely accepted. Recently, campaigns to bring this level of attention to SHAPE subjects (Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts for People and the Economy) and STEAM (STEM plus the Arts) have been initiated.
Two polar groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, at the other, scientists.... Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.
Such campaigns are part of a ‘levelling-up agenda’ to establish both high quality STEM and SHAPE/STEAM, rather than pitting them against each other. The aim is to highlight the fact that not only do the social sciences and humanities give our lives texture, opinion and perspective, but they enhance STEM innovations through enabling us to make sense of, communicate and transform the human experience.
However, this is not simply a case of exploring social sciences alongside STEM research. Rather it is creating environments and communities where they work symbiotically to inform and advance each other. Never has this been more apparent than in the context of COVID-19. Virologists, epidemiologists and doctors have worked side-by-side with behavioural scientists, economists, and social policy experts to ensure that the science related to the virus informs policy and public behaviour in attempts to limit its spread and impact on society, the economy, and individuals.
Behavioural insights, such as understanding of cultural and societal contexts, have been integral to the modelling of the virus spread, knowledge of human psychology helped address the emotional needs of individuals, and effective science communication strategies have worked to limit the spread of misinformation, such as to combat vaccine hesitancy. This evidences how SHAPE strengthens, not detracts from, the future we envisage through research and innovation. It is time to eliminate the separation between the two and give due value to these equally important endeavours.
Social science expertise in multidisciplinary structures
Imperial’s new Academic Strategy reinforces our commitment to creating impact through our discoveries, and our four themes reflect societies we all want to live in. This will only be possible through a deep understanding of people, businesses, institutions and communities.
Moreover, we will need to go beyond our departmental boundaries and exploit our social science resources to fully realise these ambitions. The first major Academic Strategy project, Transition to Zero Pollution, for example, requires fundamental physical science and engineering research, as well as deep understanding of economics, policy formation, human behaviour and ethics. We have extensive experience of this holistic approach and believe this initiative will serve as an example across the world of the benefits of integrative research.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, our Patient Experience Research Centre, a multidisciplinary group of clinicians, public health specialists and social scientists that combines strengths in quantitative and qualitative research methods, has explored people’s views, experiences and behavioural responses to the outbreak in the UK and elsewhere. The team has launched an online community involvement initiative to gather insight from members of the public, aiming to establish a network for ongoing community engagement. Online surveys revealed that information overload and conflicting guidance are among the biggest concerns for the public during the current coronavirus outbreak.
The College’s structure of multidisciplinary Centres, Networks and Global Institutes is also dedicated to creating real impact through facilitating cross-faculty collaboration with the aim of tackling real-world problems. Global Challenge Institutes harness the talents of a wide variety of researchers to address some of the world’s most important issues, our Centres aim to galvanise a critical mass of researchers to support a multidisciplinary theme, and our Networks of Excellence aim to establish and grow connections around an important area that crosses Faculties. Their success relies upon understanding and further exploring the whole picture of the reality in which we live, which is only possible through the application of social sciences in tandem with fundamental scientific discoveries, for example:
- The Grantham Institute is dedicated to creating a sustainable, resilient, zero-carbon future. This is only possible through a deep understanding of the human attitudes and behaviours that impact the planet, both at individual and societal levels. For example, in partnership with the Business School the Institute offers an MSc in Climate Change, Management and Finance that explores the economics and finance underpinning the ways that human society views the earth’s resources and the ‘natural capital’ that our environment provides us.
- The Institute for Security Science and Technology is pioneering security and resilience research, tackling complex interrelated global challenges ranging from political instability, to health crises, through to hostile threats. The understanding of humans and their behaviours is vital to the development of cutting-edge technologies which underpin national security in an increasingly socio-technical world. They train the next generation of scientists through an innovative MSc in Security & Resilience. Key to this is a focus on how behavioural science research informs security; looking at both positive and negative impact of mainstream and social media, and the different types of threat actors such as terrorists and hackers and their targets.
- The MRC Centre for Environment and Health (CEH) was formed in 2009 as a partnership between Imperial and King’s College London. CEH’s contribution to understanding air quality and pollution was reflected in an exceptional third renewal in 2019, following which it has been wholly based at Imperial. CEH undertakes research in the fields of environment and health, to inform health policy and the understanding of key issues affecting our society. The Centre achieves this by bringing together the best researchers from all areas of public health, encouraging novel cross-disciplinary approaches, and by providing the highest quality training to new and existing researchers in these fields.
- The Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society is a partnership between Imperial, King’s College London, University of Reading and Royal Holloway that is led by Prof Collin Prentice from Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences. The Centre has a focus on interdisciplinary, collaborative and participatory research and aims to radically transform the scientific and practical understanding of wildfire as an intersection of coupled social, ecological and physical processes.
Almost all of the Networks are primarily motivated by or have themes dedicated to addressing social science issues:
- The Ocean Plastics Solutions Network has a Behaviour, Business Models and Societal Change theme.
- The HUBEX Network brings together diverse disciplines and all faculties around an interest in better understanding human behaviour and experience and creating solutions that incorporate this understanding to address global challenges, including roboticists who are building robotic patients for future GP trainees.
- The Antimicrobial Research Collaborative has a Behavioural and Social Sciences theme, as well as a Public Health and Policy Theme.
- The Network for Excellence in Air Quality improves engagement with society and develops frontier research in transdisciplinary air quality research.
- The Behaviour Change in Energy and Environment Policy Research Network of Excellence, coordinates research, funding bids and policy impact on behavioural change focused on sustainability, behavioural modelling, climate change and energy policy, and
- The Sustainability through Life Cycle Approaches Network brings together life cycle research across Imperial College, connecting its 110 members to external groups, applying life cycle concepts for sustainable development.