By Professor Jennifer Rubin, ESRC Executive Chair

Government investment in and commitment to research and innovation has risen significantly in recognition of the contribution that a world-class research and innovation system can make to prosperity, security and wellbeing.

Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the research and innovation system recommended the establishment of an overarching body drawing the seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England to work more systematically together.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) came into operation on 1 April 2018. UKRI works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities and government to create an environment in which research and innovation can contribute to understanding and addressing the broad range of environmental, social, medical, scientific and technological challenges we face. 

The task of bringing social science into a more central role is crucial when so many of the societal challenges we face are fundamentally human in nature.

The creation of UKRI is a major opportunity for UK research and innovation to sustain its global reputation. The social sciences have a unique role to play in all of the major challenges facing society, and must contribute to the shaping and delivery of the new UKRI funds. These new funds will increase the visibility and impact of the social sciences, and the social sciences need to provide academic rigour, innovative approaches and be prepared to work in partnership, respond at pace and with agility.

There are high expectations for what social science can contribute to our prosperity, security and wellbeing as part of delivering UKRI's vision. 

Climate change that threatens the planet, or rising levels of obesity and type 2 diabetes, are environmental and health issues. But they are products of human interaction with the world around us. Inequalities and regional economic challenges are centrally social science issues, but they in turn are often products of wider scientific, technological developments or processes.

For many societal challenges, it is people and our behaviour that can help, or hinder, our attempts to address them. The social sciences have a unique role to play in understanding and seeking to address major challenges.

Add to these the many contemporary challenges that are more self-evidently issues for social science: the UK’s comparatively low productivity; the way digitisation and automation are changing work and employment; data-driven transformation of public services; and low levels of social mobility or regional growth. It is perhaps unsurprising that so many of the government’s recently published areas of research interest demand high-quality social scientific evidence to inform policy. An important focus for the social sciences within UKRI must be to continue to innovate in the ways that research findings can successfully inform policy and practice.

The expectations are high for what the social sciences can contribute to all of our prosperity, security and wellbeing as part of delivering UKRI’s vision.

The ESRC is committed to supporting social science that is excellent, independent and rigorous in order to meet these expectations.