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Lord Patten Lecture on Social Renewal 2014


A senior academic has proposed radical changes to the way social science is taught, researched and practiced in the UK at the annual Lord Patten Lecture on Social Renewal at Newcastle University.

John D Brewer is Professor of Post-Conflict Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. He used the annual lecture, now in its third year, to suggest that social science should reverse the trend towards professionalisation. He argued that an increasing focus on research ‘impact’ in the assessment criteria for UK universities has required social scientists to demonstrate that they are engaged in robust scientific research that delivers concrete economic value.

But Professor Brewer’s lecture, ‘Society as a vocation: renewing social science for social renewal’, forwarded the argument that social scientists should instead focus on society’s needs and interests in a much broader sense, and address the challenges of the 21st Century. He called for new approaches, including:

•    Recognition that social science is value-orientated as well as scientific. It should have a moral commitment to the ‘social good’, being the continual improvement of society. However, scientists’ use of evidence should remain unaffected by the individual moral values that they hold.
•    Moving beyond inter-disciplinary research to what Professor Brewer calls “post-disciplinarity”, where researchers start with a problem facing society and approach this from whatever perspectives are appropriate to that problem, even those outside their disciplines.
•    More collaboration with Government, NGOs and civil society to make research participative and to produce knowledge together with these groups. This should start from the very beginning, with the framing of the research problem.
•    Reducing the amount of jargon used by research professionals and encouraging a focus on genuine engagement with society, rather than simply sharing research findings after the fact.

According to Professor Brewer:
“Universities should dismantle their ivory towers. The value of social science is that it is capable of teaching and research that is publicly-engaged, driven by global societal challenges, and capable of post-disciplinary practice that is based on explicit ethical responsibilities, all while still being scientifically rigorous. By making society our vocation, we can renew social science to make it better able to engage in social renewal.”

Professor Mark Shucksmith OBE, Director of the Newcastle University Institute for Social Renewal, said: “What Professor Brewer describes is very much our vision at Newcastle University. As a world-class civic university we focus our research excellence on three major issues facing humankind: ageing, social renewal and sustainability.

"We’ve long recognised the value of social science teaching, research and practice in helping address the challenges society is facing, and we increasingly seek to focus our work at the University towards these three Societal Challenge Themes.”

published on: 1 May 2014