Science alone will not save us

Climate chaos0


But there is concern that a government desire to protect science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects by ringfencing funding could, in the long term, affect the ability of these teams to conduct research.

For Professor Paul Wellings, chairman-elect of the 1994 group of smaller research-intensive universities, it is a question of getting together what he calls a “dream team”, comprising not just scientists, but researchers from the social sciences and humanities, to deal with the nightmare scenario recently conjured by the government’s chief scientist, John Beddington, in which the world is gripped by a “perfect storm” of war, starvation and mass migration.

Coming up with answers

For Wellings, it is not enough simply to rely on science and technology to come up with the answers we need. Looking at individuals’ behaviour and getting them to change that is, he argues, as important as new technology.

While not opposed to ringfencing per se, he argues for a more nuanced approach, with support maintained for social sciences and humanities. The 1994 group estimates that the ringfencing of funding for Stem subjects during the 2008 research assessment exercise (RAE)cost its institutions 20p in the pound per researcher.

“If we were asked as institutions to help solve major global challenges, and asked what is the ‘dream team’ that we would want to field for doing that,” says Wellings, “as soon as you start to put that together, there are engineers, technocrats and very often people in the humanities and the social sciences.”

At the sharp end of what he is talking about are people such as Sarah Curtis, a geographer heading a group of Durham University academics working with engineers from Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University on a project to discover how storms, floods and heatwaves caused by climate change might affect the elderly and how infrastructure can be tailored to cope.

“Multidisciplinary work helps engineers and scientists, as well as the professional carers, tackle extreme weather events in the future and keep services running,” Curtis says. “They also need to understand from the people receiving those services what’s important to them and that’s where the social science perspective comes in – really being able to interpret events and problems from different social perspectives.

“The social science perspective isn’t just about individual behaviour, but helps us to think about the way that people work and interact together. I would argue that what’s important to people and how they tackle problems is not just down to individual characteristics but also to the social circumstances they’re in.”

She is concerned about an over-reliance on Stem subjects to provide solutions to climate change. “This isn’t just about sharing academic knowledge, but also the public debate as well, because in all honesty I don’t think that natural scientists have all the answers to the problems we’re facing over climate change and neither do I think that social scientists have the solutions. So we are going to have to negotiate across these different points of view if we are going to move forward.”

Wellings, a population ecologist, says there is a pool of expertise within the 1994 group, with its strength in social science and humanities. He would like to see it drawn upon when it comes to tackling environmental issues. “If we don’t get a grip on climate change we are going to see the world’s largest diaspora, when a huge area of sub-Saharan Africa will be forced into absolute water shortage. At that point 300 million people could walk off the land and towards Europe. There are a family of issues that, if we get them badly wrong, will produce a perfect storm within about 40 to 50 years around some of those big picture issues.

“So who are the people who understand the culture of these areas and the management of diaspora? By and large, it’s not scientists but social scientists and humanities people.”

He points to the School of Oriental and African Studies, a member of the 1994 group. “I don’t know what the future of geopolitics is, but I do know that in the future we are going to have to turn to people such as those at Soas, who are experts in languages and anthropology from that part of the world. It will be an inevitable response that we will need a world-class centre of excellence of the sort that we already have there.”

In the meantime, Wellings, who is also vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, fears there will be less money for academics to engage in speculative research in social sciences and humanities.

“You can have a pretty shrewd guess there will be substantially less money going back into those departments than there was before,” he says. “And so over the next 18 months you will see a sharp diminution in research activity. Some of that will be a reduction in the number of projects that are being run and some of it will be in the support to postgraduates.

“Less money will cause colleagues to be more entrepreneurial and in the short run they will be more market-facing, or recruit more international students, but it won’t maintain research capacity and that is the thing that will be eroded. The intellectual need for there to be multidisciplinary research will not go away and that will put tremendous pressure on universities to ensure that the financial resources are there.”

Wellings, who sits on the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is calling for more transparency when it comes to the new funding mechanism that will replace the RAE, the Research Excellence Framework – in particular, in the funding of Stem subjects relative to social sciences and humanities. “In the future, there will have to be transparency about what the likelihood is of resource in each area,” he says.

A wider research base

Diane Berry, Reading University’s pro vice-chancellor for research, echoes this argument. “It is clearly important to protect funding for Stem subjects and medicine. However, we cannot afford to conceive our science base too narrowly – we must protect our wider research base.

“This is because addressing current and future global challenges depends on the successful interplay of all subjects. Furthermore, the boundaries between the natural sciences and the social sciences and humanities are becoming increasingly fluid as research at the frontiers of knowledge becomes increasingly inter- and multidisciplinary.”

David Delpy, the chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, says: “Obviously, there needs to be a balance between arts and science funding. Both are important. However, there remains a shortage in physical sciences and engineering graduates. We agree that when it comes to priority areas such as climate change a cross-disciplinary approach is vital if we are to be successful.” Delpy points to the Research Council UK’s Living With Environmental Change programme as an example of how the seven research councils are working together “to try and solve major problems that face society”.

“Increasingly,” says Berry, “success in markets, which many people might assume to be dominated by technological advances, depends just as much on factors such as design, economics, branding and consumer understanding.

“Similarly, effectively tackling some of the most significant health and environmental challenges will depend just as much on changing people’s behaviour as on advances in medicine, physics, or chemistry.”