“Social science can be key to turning much research and innovation into effective action that improves outcomes”

by Martin Ince

Professor Jennifer Rubin, ESRC’s new Chief Executive and Executive Chair Designate, explains her goals for the ESRC, her research background and how social science can help address global problems to improve outcomes.

Professor Jennifer Rubin has just become the ESRC’s Chief Executive and Executive Chair Designate. In April, the post will transform into Executive Chair of ESRC, one of the nine constituent bodies of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

She joins from King’s College London, where she is professor of public policy and was director of the Policy Institute at King’s.

Jennifer Rubin

On her first priorities in the new role, Professor Rubin points to the creation of UKRI as the opportunity to create something that “more than ever facilitates research funding across disciplines, so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” She says: “My first institutional priority is to make a success of the ESRC becoming part of UKRI and to enhance the pivotal contribution of the social sciences to the UK research and innovation landscape. This will call for coordinated, strategic working within ESRC and with the other eight bodies that will constitute UKRI.”

Rubin is clear this ambition will only succeed if ESRC is supporting world-leading science, working with the world’s best social scientists and funders. “Inevitably, we social scientists will identify some areas in which we could be doing better.” This might involve strengthening data infrastructure and data linking, training of graduate students and early career researchers, and “some new vehicles” for facilitating working across academic and bridging institutions on pressing societal issues. “I am ambitious for us to be supporting excellent social science which helps us understand human behaviour, social relations and society, and addresses societal challenges.”

The importance of social science to delivering on UKRI’s ambitions is stressed as vital by Rubin, who states it “can be key to turning much research and innovation into effective action that improves outcomes.”

She adds: “I know there is an appetite in UKRI and elsewhere to create shared understanding of key problems and solutions that have a social component. Why spend billions on a new antibiotic without also seeking to understand and improve how GPs prescribe and patients use it?”

Antibiotic use is a subject close to Rubin’s heart. She was involved in the O’Neill Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) – a growing problem which threatens the effectiveness of much modern medicine. She led a study that drew out scenarios for the cost of AMR to the year 2050. This approach, demonstrates “the problem is not just a medical or clinical one.” Keeping people away from work, or preventing operations, can have broad effects for social wellbeing and on the labour market. The conclusions – presented worldwide – were graphic: even in the base case, not the worst case, the human and financial costs are likely to be massive.

In recognising the need to continue the recent growth of the ESRC’s international reach, Rubin says: “The UK is presently one of the big winners from EU research funding, and our people are highly sought as collaborators. I hope to find ways to continue and strengthen these relationships.

“I have met researchers and funders from Germany, the US and Australia who are anxious to work with us, and I am finding a lot of goodwill for UK social science. I am confident that we’ll find ways to continue to be closely involved in the EU research landscape.”

Tackling the pivotal question of whether and how we might increase productivity is also high on her list, with its potential to make a difference to many societal challenges, as well as improving overall economic performance. Then there are the many important social, legal and ethical challenges around AI…

This massive agenda matches Rubin’s enthusiasm for ambitious social science. She says: “Addressing these challenges involves geography, sociology, economics, political science, anthropology and psychology. The complex set of issues faced by different communities and countries spans all disciplines of the social sciences as well as health, scientific innovation and more.”

This is shorter version of an article taken from the latest issue of Society NowRead the full interview, written by Martin Ince, in the winter 2018 edition.

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