'Social sciences just as useful for society as technology subjects'

| Paul de Kuyper

It’s time to bin once and for all the stereotypical assumption that Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine research (STEM) is more useful for society than Social Science and Humanities research (SSH). Research by UT employee Paul Benneworth has shown that both SSH and STEM are useful for society. He urges policymakers to take that issue more seriously. ‘They must be made aware that it is not better per se to invest in STEM research.'

There is a persistent assumption that STEM research delivers far more for society than SSH research, according to Bennewotrh, a researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies. ‘And it’s a stereotype that keeps cropping up in research policy. The Horizon 2020 (European Commission-funded research programme, ed.) is only financing SSH research when it forms part of a larger STEM-based study. You see the same in the Netherlands with the Top Sector policy, where just one of the nine Top Sectors, creative industries, is oriented towards SSH research.’

That presumption must urgently change, he argues. At the start of this month, Benneworth published an article together with Spanish colleagues over the impact of research on society.‘We started with the observation that if science is useful, then there is a user for it. If SSH was less useful, then there would be fewer users for their research. We studied 4200 researchers, and what we found is that although SSH researchers might interact differently with users, they do not interact less usefully with them.'

Benneworth argued that SSH are as valuable for society as STEM, but useful in a different way. STEM tends to be more international. 'SSH research is more oriented on national communities. Humanities are often engaged in researching a particular culture; their research is tied to a specific place. But within nanotechnology, a nano-particle in the Netherlands behaves much the same as in China’.

Another difference that Benneworth found with his Spanish colleagues was that STEM tends to do more contract research, whilst SSH researchers tend to have more informal contacts with users such as civil society organisations.

And of course there is the different ways that the media portray STEM and SSH. 'In STEm, it is the science that is often the story. For example the hunt for the Higgs Boson. SSH are less visible in the media. It is not so much about the researcher, but over something in society that needs explaining. When there are riots in Stockholm, you see SSH researchers in media reports providing explanations and context.'

Benneworth wants to make this point clearer for policymakers. 'You can’t maintain the illusion any longer that STEM research should be prioritised because it is more useful for society. If you want to create social value, then you should invest in SSH as well. We think that now is the time for a wider and better informed debate over research priorities and social impacts.'

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