Social Sciences at Cambridge: Working with the sciences

On 9 July 2014, the inaugural Philomathia Forum Symposium took place in the McGrath Centre, St. Catharine’s College.  The event brought academics together with the goal of discussing how we might better achieve collaboration and cooperation between Social Sciences and the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), particularly in areas of research which may influence and affect public policy.

The following report on the day’s events was written Dr Charlotte Sausman, Co-ordinator of the Public Policy Strategic Research Initiative.

A Research Agenda for Public Policy Research in Cambridge

What might be identified as some of the big public policy challenges of our age? Energy, food security, poverty, public health, conservation?

Today Cambridge academics from a number of disciplines came together to discuss the contribution of Cambridge research to address some of these challenges.

Established research programmes at Cambridge that cross disciplines in order to tackle big policy issues were highlighted – such as in energy, conservation, food security and public health. Delegates also heard about new programmes that focus on contemporary ideas and processes in relation to public policy such as Big Data.

What is the role of academics in addressing public policy issues?

First, we learnt it is important to take an historical perspective on contemporary social problems. Using the example of the transition from the poor law to the welfare state in the early twentieth century, which was an early example of data collection and statistical analysis shaping public policy, Professor Simon Deakin showed how, despite advances in social science methods, little progress had been made to date, in resolving some long standing public policy issues. Our failure to ‘solve’ policy problems such as housing, poverty and ill-health shows how important it is to study the craft or process of policy-making, the subject of the new Strategic Research Initiative on Public Policy.

It is not enough for researchers to present their findings to policy makers and expect them simply to implement them. Policy making is a process and if academics want to influence it they have to understand how it works,” commented Simon Deakin, co-chair of the Strategic Research Initiative on Public Policy.

Second, academics make a contribution in seeking out the underlying causes of complex social problems; in short, to seek out ‘the causes of the causes of the causes’ of today’s issues.

Professor Larry King showed delegates how political economy, with an emphasis on the governance of public health, explained variations in life expectancy between different groups and over time in post-communist states. Studying decisions made at political economy level leads researchers to go beyond the question of ‘what works?’ and ask, ‘what works for whom?’

Third, there was an appreciation of interdisciplinary work in solving practical problems, and an emphasis on the primacy of data and knowledge being brought to bear on significant issues. For example, researchers on Big Data are looking at the contribution of large data sets to public policy as well as analysing how data, including performance data and also social data, is being used to steer public policy and how citizens engage with policy makers. In the digital humanities research network, researchers explore how we as individuals connect with data and digital processes and ask questions about the ethics and values underlying how data is built up and used in order to direct public institutions. At the Behaviour and Health Research Unit researchers focus on generating evidence, including on behavioural science and ‘nudge’ approaches to changing behaviour in public health. They also recognise the context in which policies are put into effect and the ‘acceptability’ of policies designed to change behaviour:

While behavioural science works to identify the environmental cues that increase as well as those that reduce consumption of these products [tobacco, alcohol, processed foods], changing these environmental cues (e.g. branded packaging of cigarettes, widespread availability of cheap processed foods, sugary drinks and alcohol), needs contributions from political, social and economic sciences, as well as history. Cambridge has rare strengths in this collection of disciplines with the potential to make a significant contribution to the huge and growing global burden of the chronic diseases caused by over-consumption.” Professor Theresa Marteau, Director, Behaviour and Health Research Unit.

Our discussions around global energy issues brought together researchers at Cambridge with Professor Paul Wright from Berkeley’s Energy and Climate Institute. Professor Wright summarised the global energy challenge in supporting economic growth in all countries, especially developing ones, without substantially increasing carbon emissions from coal or gas. Professor Wright’s visit reflects collaboration between Berkeley and Cambridge, and our academics were interested in the ‘model’ that Berkeley has established through CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society), a centre that hosts multi-disciplinary projects on large societal problems such as energy and the environment, and IT for healthcare.

Fourth, we were reminded that public policy analysis is not just about addressing contemporary issues, but also about how to promote the public good, or ‘res publica’. As Professor Christopher Hill reflected, ‘This theme ran like a silver thread through all the discussions … it focuses on helping those responsible for acting on all our behalves to improve their ways of being both effective and democratic.’

We addressed what could be the specific contribution of Cambridge social science research to big issues such as energy, conservation and climate change. Cambridge’s distinctive approach to problems was summed up by delegates as providing ‘history, culture, ideas’- an appreciation of the causes of problems, the context in which policies are formed and implemented, and the importance of bringing original thinking to bear on complex issues. For example, Dr Vira from the University’s Conservation Initiative explored the important role for social science in building a case for conservation research and explaining and understanding the wider social constructs that shape and constrain conservation practice. More broadly the range of expertise at Cambridge gives the university considerable convening power in bringing diverse research interests around a theme. This was highlighted in the Energy Strategic Research Initiative and also in the Global Food Security Initiative, which brings together researchers form infectious diseases, land resources, modelling for food security and political economy.

We heard from the University’s Director of Communications, Paul Mylrea, on activities to support engagement between researchers and policy makers. He also reminded us about the view from the other side – politicians and their private office – and how important it is for academics to identify and understand the target audience when communicating about research:

A detailed understanding of the policy makers, their drivers, perceptions and beliefs, is critical for any researcher who wishes to influence policy. And just as important is, understanding the process of policy making. All too often, sound advice can be discarded because it is presented in the wrong way, at the wrong time or through the wrong channels.”

The symposium was an opportunity to connect with new colleagues and hear about the range of work going on at Cambridge in subjects as diverse as law and zoology, and to ‘…talk with them about potential collaborations and contributions we could make to each other’s work’ (Dr Alex Kogan).

On energy, Dr David Reiner commented that, ‘The Philomathia Symposium was a great opportunity for me to meet with Prof Paul Wright who directs the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute (BECI) and discuss opportunities for future collaboration between Cambridge and Berkeley and particularly between the Energy Policy Research Group/Energy@Cambridge and BECI.’

Leaving the symposium delegates were convinced of the strength of social science at Cambridge, the importance of collaborative research, and the case was made for undertaking new research and analysis into the public policy process at Cambridge.

Professor Martin Daunton, Head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, who leads the Philomathia Social Sciences Research Programme at Cambridge summed up the day:

The symposium was a great success in bringing together social sciences with colleagues from the sciences, medicine and technology who realise that their solutions to the great challenges facing to the world stand little chance of success without a deep engagement with social, political and economic processes.  A conversation started across disciplinary lines which will develop and flourish in the future”.

Symposium 2014 response – Professor Paul Wright

Professor Paul Wright, Director of the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute, gave an excellent presentation as part of the Energy SRI panel.  He has very kindly written a report for inclusion on our website, which you can read below, or download as a PDF .

Social Sciences at Cambridge: Working with the sciences

I would like to sincerely thank the Philomathia Foundation for supporting a Forum that analyzed the complex societal topics of public health, food security, energy, and conservation. These remain the grand challenges of our era. Solution-oriented sessions on big data, digital humanities and public policy then stimulated many new ideas. I would also like to thank Professors Martin Daunton, Chris Hill, and the administrative team at Cambridge for their warm welcome and well-organized day.

For me personally it was refreshing to travel from the U.S. and arrive in Europe. Frankly, your day-to-day discussions have now moved beyond the foggy debates on “Is climate change real and did humankind create the change?” to a more assertive “Yes its real and we are now doing something about it.” Of course on both sides of the Atlantic there remain a few die-hard ‘deniers.’ But in general, The Times each morning included at least one energy/climate article that addressed mitigation and adaptation in a forward-looking manner. Day-to-day conversations in trains and taxis showed that consumers were thinking about the issue; and concerned enough to urge their elected officials to make positive changes in their neighborhoods.

Despite this growing awareness, the climate is not getting better but worse: measured by carbon levels, droughts, storms, and air-quality. In the meeting I showed data emphasizing that the carbon dioxide levels crossed the 400 parts per million last year. And the shape of the curve is rising like a hockey stick. Despite this challenge, in most parts of the world, people and their political leaders are eager for economic growth as their first priority. Growth that is most easily obtained by burning coal, gas and oil for basic electricity and transportation.

So what should we do collectively? Speaking as an engineer we need: a) cheaper and better solar power, wind power and biofuels; b) far more efficient energy storage, with batteries and other technologies; c) advanced power grids that can welcome these intermittent energy sources; d) electric vehicles and new transportation fuels that reduce carbon emissions. These are the “tech-push” solutions for the supply side of energy. But we are not moving fast enough. For example, in the U.S., most new installations of energy production do use renewables or lower polluting natural gas. But overall, only 6% of total U.S. production comes from renewable energy.

This is where social scientists can play a major role. In the short term we need creative public policy (subsidies, tax credits etc.) to support the growth of solar, wind, biofuels and other renewables, because today they are more expensive than coal for electricity production. Further, we need stable laws so that opposing interest groups do not undermine such policies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently launched an initiative to support cleaner production of electricity. Colleagues in our Institute, Professor Steve Weismann and Dr. Danny Cullenward, are studying these new rules, previous rulings at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and rulings in California to ensure that clean energy policies are put into practice rapidly and not undermined. Social scientists can also play a main role in promoting energy efficiency in industrial, commercial and residential settings. Often it’s a matter of showing consumers how much energy they are wasting and its associated cost. Not only to the carbon-burden of the planet (a longer term vaguer cost to consumers) but to their own wallet!

I look forward to many such meetings between Cambridge and Berkeley. Together we can ‘invent the future’ of a cleaner planet with enough energy for equitable economic growth for all.

Paul Wright, Director of the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute
Special Advisor to the Chancellor on Sustainability
The A. Martin Berlin Chair Professor of Mechanical Engineering,     

Social Science Research for the 21st Century - Progress through Partnership