Tim Vorley is Professor of Entrepreneurship and Associate Dean for Engagement, Impact and Innovation at Sheffield University Management School. He is an economic geographer by training, and the focus of his research is entrepreneurship, innovation and regional development. Tim convenes the Innovation Caucus, a group of 66 social science academics across the UK, who are funded by Innovate UK and the Economic and Social Research Council to provide real-time research insights about innovation theory, policy and practice.
Melanie Knetsch is ESRC’s Strategic Lead: Interdisciplinarity and Impact. Part of her role includes developing ESRC’s thinking and activities around interdisciplinary, challenge-led activities and ensuring that our research portfolio is more visible to potential users, as well as creating opportunities to enable researchers from other communities to engage with social science. She is currently overseeing ESRC’s engagement with the Industrial Strategy and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.
At the beginning of this year the Government opened a consultation on a new Industrial Strategy for the UK. Throughout the year it has become increasingly apparent that social scientists are not only well positioned to ride the wave of the Industrial Strategy, but they are also making a splash in their own right. Yet, beyond the ‘early engagers’ already involved, there remains a wider need for the social sciences to recognise and articulate the value of what they bring to the Industrial Strategy and the businesses it is intended to support.
Since the beginning of the year, the ongoing engagement around the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) is an example of an alternative way to realise the value of social science research in addressing business-led challenges. The new Industrial Strategy is, therefore, not just a game changer in political terms, but in changing the dynamic between the social sciences and business. The ISCF provides a new platform for collaboration between these two groups as the rules and focus of this emerging fund become clearer.
It is increasingly apparent that the social sciences are at the heart of the Industrial Strategy. This is particularly evident around questions of place, inclusive growth and shared prosperity that are woven through the consultation and emerging challenges, as well as the recent Science and Innovation Audits. So whether researching the underpinning evidence needed for a UK wide strategy, providing evidence on what is already known or co-producing actionable insights the social sciences are critical. The real challenges for the social sciences is clearly articulating the value it brings to partners – businesses in particular.
To articulate what social science has to offer demands that we understand what business needs – which means working in ways that this understanding can be achieved. And this opens up the potential for the social sciences to pursue new ways of working, where the emphasis is on research with business as opposed to research on business.
The little preposition change from ‘on’ to ‘with’ business makes all the difference, and is more than semantics. The opportunities and rewards for the social sciences from not only the ISCF but other funds that support research with business more widely are potentially immense. And BEIS (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) agrees with this, having recently allocated ESRC £5 million from the National Productivity Investment Fund over the next four years with a clear focus on developing the skills of our early career researchers to engage more with business. Linked to a number of the ESRC large grants, centres, Impact Acceleration Accounts and Doctoral Training Partnerships, these studentships and fellowships are excellent examples of how the social sciences can contribute to the Industrial Strategy.
However, realising these opportunities and reaping the rewards is about understanding and responding to the (business-led) challenge. While there will always be a need for social science research to advance knowledge and generate new insights, this is the tip of the iceberg for what social science has to offer. For social scientists it is paramount that there is an emphasis on translating what we do and articulating why it is important to different audiences, of which engaging and collaborating with business is a critical aspect of this. If we do not rise to the challenge, especially with wave 2 of the ISCF announced, we may miss the boat.