Global problems need social science

First posted by Hetan Shah in on January 15, 2020. Hetan Shah is the soon to be chief executive of the Royal Society (UK). He writes how all the major issues the world faces cannot be addressed by statistics, data, and STEM disciplines alone.

Among other things, Hetan Shah states:

– Epidemics are social as well as biological phenomena

– Advances in treatments for mental health needs to understand how contexts (poverty, homelessness, education, etc.) influences success

– Environmental issues are not just technical challenges that can be solved by invention

– Technological advances are necessary but they require an understanding of how people adapt and change their behaviour

– Vaccine hesitancy is a social phenomenon that is challenging biomedical prevention of infectious diseases.

Obvious roles for the social sciences and humanities in policy issues include national and geographical identify, poverty and inequality, and migration.

He ends with a challenge to all governments, “without the humanities and social sciences, hard science and technology can do little to resolve complex societal challenges. Wise governments will find ways to incorporate that insight”.

Research Impact Canada and KMb York do not cater solely to the social sciences and humanities but we are cognizant of the important role they play in many policy debates. Concerning however is the “knowledge mobilization” survey sent to Canadian Universities by Universities Canada in November 2018. Apart from one section on community engaged research and social innovation (for which we advocated) the remaining 80% of questions were about commercialization, industry engagement, entrepreneurship and accelerators/incubators. The vast majority of these university services are focused on economic development and job creation. To be fair, the request for the Universities Canada data came from ISED (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada) so the focus was from ISED not necessarily from Universities Canada.

The tri-councils understand this need having recently launched the New Frontiers Research Fund requiring researchers from multiple disciplines.

Similarly, ISED needs to work across government including Employment and Social Development Canada, Immigration and Refugees Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada so that “innovation” isn’t aligned solely with economic development but can be harnessed along with the humanities and social sciences to address multidisciplinary issues in a multidisciplinary approach.


Written by David J. Phipps, Ph.D., MBA

Executive Director, Research & Innovation Services

Division of Vice-President Research & Innovation, Office of Research Services – York University