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Highlights from #CatchingTheWave Social Science & Industrial Strategy Event, 20 May 2019

Opening keynote: ISCF & the Social Sciences in Wave 3 – Dan Hodges, Deputy Director, Strategy – Innovate UK

After opening the event and introducing the Innovation Caucus, Tim Vorley welcomed to the stage Dan Hodges, Deputy Director – Strategy at Innovate UK, to deliver the first keynote speech. Dan set the scene by providing an overview of UKRI, Innovate UK and the Industrial Strategy landscape. He explained that there are opportunities for social scientists to contribute across all four Industrial Strategy Grand Challenges, including looking at cultural change, business models, diffusion and adoption, as well as potential negative social impacts and how these can be mitigated.

Dan explained that the government’s Industrial Strategy aims to boost productivity by focusing on five foundations: ‘Ideas’; ‘People’; ‘Infrastructure’; ‘Business Environment’; and ‘Places’. Innovate UK works across these five foundations and all are key to the ISCF challenges. Dan believes that social scientists have the potential to play an important role in advancing our understanding of all of these. Dan presented the ISCF challenges in waves 1, 2 and 3 and set the tone for the rest of the day by explaining the vital role of social science in implementing the Industrial Strategy:

“If the social sciences haven’t been embedded into the ISCF challenges, then they haven’t been set up right to achieve societal impact”.

Dan’s speech was accompanied by lots of positive tweets and followed by questions from the floor. Dan’s presentation slides are available here.


Panel 1: How the Social Sciences can add value

We had a fantastic line-up of speakers for our first panel session, expertly chaired by Melanie Knetsch, Deputy Director of Innovation and Impact at the ESRC. Mel was joined by panel members, Rob Saunders, Industrial Strategy Challenge Director (Energy Revolution) from Innovate UK; Sarah Hodgetts, Deputy Director at BEIS; Ed Hobson, Head of Design & Innovation at the Knowledge Transfer Network; and Adam Luqmani, Senior Portfolio Manager from the ESRC.

Rob Saunders talked about the Energy Revolution and the potential role of social science in advancing our thinking about the ‘complex system’. This challenge involves developing future smart energy, providing cleaner, cheaper, more resilient energy systems and demonstrating their use at scale.

Sarah Hodgetts referred to the role of the Industrial Strategy Council, chaired by Andy Haldane, which has been set up to assess progress on delivering the Industrial Strategy. Sarah also emphasized the importance of the social sciences in solving the UK’s ‘productivity puzzle’.

Ed Hobson talked about the potential for social scientists to help develop better design solutions and how a social science perspective can change how people think about and address Industrial Strategy challenges.

It was great to hear from Adam Luqmani about how he is advocating social science in the wave 3 business cases, embedding it into the DNA of the ISCF. Social scientists need to work out how to ‘sell’ themselves to businesses and other partners to take advantage of these opportunities. Adam said:

“We need to get the acceptance and adoption piece right. This is where we need to see social science led projects”.

A key message from the first #CatchingTheWave panel was that social scientists need to recognise the valuable insights they can bring to the Industrial Strategy and identify how best to promote their unique capabilities to businesses and other stakeholders.


Round table discussions: What might the Social Science offer look like & how can it be articulated?

Of course, the value of attending events is not just from listening to expert speakers and panel members, but also from interacting with other attendees. This session incorporated round table discussions, with the opportunity for delegates to focus on the Grand Challenge of most interest to them (AI & data, Ageing Society, Clean Growth, or Future of Mobility). Round table discussions were interspersed with polling questions, conducted as a plenary, to gather live audience feedback. This session worked really well, balancing quick fire polling questions with more in-depth interaction. Professor Katherine Runswick-Cole tweeted: “Loving the use of to capture disciplines and institutions represented here”.

Delegates comprised mostly social science academics, but also included circa 25% knowledge exchange professionals. Around 50 different disciplines / specialisms were identified as being present in the room, including: business / management; innovation / entrepreneurship; economics; sociology; political economy; psychology; information systems; geography; design; law; construction management; town planning; engineering; and advanced manufacturing.

The majority of delegates reported feeling relatively confident about relating to the ISCF priorities and drivers, with only 21% “still unsure”. Almost half were already engaging with other disciplines than their own, either with other social scientists or with non-social science disciplines. In terms of non-academic partners, public sector engagement came out higher than engagement with businesses or third sector partners. “Conceptual” knowledge came out top, in terms of what delegates could primarily bring to the ISCF (47%), followed by “Empirical” knowledge (27%) and “Methodological” knowledge (24%), with only 2% answering “None really”.

The top skills that social scientists could bring were felt to be “Analytical” (32%), followed by “Problem-solving” (22%) and “Boundary-spanning” (20%) (with “Visionary” and “Others” each on 13%).

This level of engagement and interdisciplinary working was felt to be very encouraging. Tim Vorley tweeted “The world’s problems do not divide up along disciplinary boundaries”; and “If @CSkidmoreUK was in #Sheffield today I’m sure he’d be impressed by the engagement and commitment of #SocialScientists with the #IndustrialStrategy and #ISCF”.


Final keynote: Business Engagement Vision – Social Science as the Golden Thread – Melanie Knetsch, Deputy Director, Impact & Innovation – ESRC

Tim welcomed Mel back to the stage to give our final keynote speech. Mel shared her vision and insights about social science engagement with business and about moving from research on and about business to research with business (i.e. collaboration). She discussed the opportunities for social science in relation to the ISCF, emphasizing that “It isn’t all about new technologies!”. Social scientists can help to frame problems in new ways, by asking challenging questions and rethinking assumptions. Mel highlighted some of the key ways in which social scientists can contribute, including:

  • Understanding the role of industry in driving growth and understanding regional variation (place)
  • How to ensure adoption of new ideas, technologies, services and approaches, including ethical considerations
  • New skills that are needed by companies
  • How business models can be evolved to capture more value and make companies fit for the future
  • How customers can drive product innovation
  • How businesses can develop new methods
  • How they can design better products, services, processes, methods and practices
  • How workforces can engage with change
  • Identifying new ways of measuring the hard-to-measure – e.g. productivity, business-to-business partnerships, impact
  • Offering excellent understanding of data and digital innovations
  • Helping to understand bias, ethics, employees, managers, and customers
  • Working closely with regulators, government and policymakers.

There were lots of positive comments on Twitter, for example, Dr Vicki Belt from the Enterprise Research Centre tweeted: “Insightful talk by @Mel_Knetsch of @ESRC on #SocialScience and business engagement. Barriers exist but there are so many benefits”. Mel’s presentation slides are available here.


Panel 2: Experiences of ISCF & the Industrial Strategy

Our final panel was very ably chaired by James Wilsdon, Professor of Research Policy in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield. James was joined on the stage by: Professor Jacqueline Glass (UCL); Professor Lucy Kimbell (UAL); Professor Simon Collinson (University of Birmingham); and Professor Katy Mason (Lancaster University).

 This was a practical conversation, involving academics sharing their experiences from the coal face on issues such as finding partners, developing and implementing proposals. A few highlights and top tips from panellists included:

Jacqui Glass advised that the Transforming Construction Challenge is massive and academics are seen as a conduit. “It’s a rewarding space but stakeholder engagement is key”. Also, “Don’t underestimate your hours! You have to accept the short timescales – these are dense programmes of work, but these investments are not about reaching end points: they’re part of a trajectory”.

Lucy Kimbell highlighted the potential of conducting design-led, co-produced research and shared her experiences in relation Next Generation Services, exploring the potential of AI in relation to business models, data and ethics. Lucy’s top tips were to “Pick partners who are different; be open to learning and therefore transformation. Go out of your comfort zone!”.

Simon Collinson talked about his experiences as Director of City-REDI, emphasizing that we need to continue to demonstrate legitimacy and the added value of social sciences. He advised that “These aren’t quick fixes and early wins: you need to look at pathways to different forms of impacts”.

Katy Mason discussed some of the challenges of ”learning by doing” as a researcher and bringing innovation to the research process as it takes place. Gantt charts are helpful, but flexibility is needed around challenges and to respond to new opportunities as they arise. “Evaluation frameworks need to be iterative and re-looked at over the lifetime of projects.” Katy also offered this positive note on which to end: “There’s an opportunity to have real fun again with research – the thrill of being out there dealing with real research problems is really exciting”.


Following the Panel 2 Q&As, it only remained for Tim to thank everyone for attending and for their contributions – especially our speakers, panellists and facilitators, for sharing their insights and stimulating lots of thought-provoking discussions throughout the day.