‘Harnessing the Vital Role of the Social Sciences’ – Event Round-up

‘Harnessing the Vital Role of Social Sciences in Addressing Contemporary Challenges’ | Wednesday 6 November

This event was part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science 2019


This LSSI event, as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science, aimed to bring together varied speakers who could explore the role of the Social Sciences in teaching, research, and application, and think about how the social sciences can best be championed and positioned to effectively address pressing social challenges. This post will provide a summary of the event and share some key insights from the speakers.

The event started with a presentation from Dr Matthew Hall from Worcester Sixth Form College. Matthew spoke about his varied career but particularly about his experience as a Social Sciences teacher at A-Level. He shared that at his institution, the Social Sciences were among the most popular A-Level choices (with some 250 students taking A-Level Sociology), but that there are still challenges around the perceived value of Social Sciences subjects. Matthew spoke about the skills he felt students gained from taking a social science, at A-Level particularly: a host of transferable skills and values; the ability to engage critically with the world around them; a sense of social responsibility; and the ability to focus on the detail but keep an eye on the ‘bigger picture’ were just a few of the skills he attributed to studying social sciences.

Dr Matthew Hall


Next we were delighted to be joined by Dr Joanna Elvy from Leeds College of Building. Joanna shared insights from her fascinating and diverse career, focusing specifically on her current role as an educator in Transport Planning. Joanna spoke about encouraging a rounded attitude to the discipline and described the social sciences as ‘the art of the possible’. Joanna shared that she felt it was her responsibility, as an educator, to promote this attitude to her students.

Dr Joanna Elvy


We were then pleased to be joined by Dr Joseph Ibrahim, Political Sociologist at Leeds Beckett University. Joseph spoke about the changing landscape of the Social Sciences and how he had observed this over his career. He highlighted elements of the recently published, Augar Report (May 2019) and challenged suggestions that the social sciences can be branded ‘low cost’ and ‘low value’, speaking passionately about their value beyond economics.


Dr Sabine Little visited us from the University of Sheffield where she is Deputy Director of Learning and Teaching and a Lecturer in the School of Education. The key message from Sabine’s presentation was that we need to be louder at articulating the widely applicable skills that are gained from studying and researching the social sciences, and when we share the crucial value of the social sciences in improving society and solving problems.

Dr Sabine Little


We were really pleased to be joined at the event by Professor Mark Western who was visiting Leeds from Australia where he is director of the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR) at the University of Queensland. Mark’s visit forms part of an ongoing strategic partnership between LSSI and ISSR at the University of Queensland. You can read more about LSSI’s international partnerships here.

Mark shared some insights about the climate for social sciences in Australia, and echoed many of the key challenges that had been highlighted by our previous speakers from the UK, particularly around precarious and uncertain funding and perceived value in comparison to STEM subjects. Mark also spoke about progression after graduation and championed the social sciences for preparing graduates, at all levels, to be equipped to work effectively in a wide variety of sectors due to extensive and widely applicable skill sets.

The next session of the day focused on three social science graduates who now operate successfully in very different sectors. William Vineall, who is Director of Acute Care and Quality Policy at the Department of Health and Social Care; Alex Gardiner, CEO of Rare TV; and Howard Josephs, Director at See Research all spoke about how their careers have been shaped by the skills, both expected and surprising, that they carry with them from their backgrounds studying the social sciences.

The event’s final presentation came from Sharon Witherspoon, Head of Policy at the Academy of Social Sciences. Sharon shared insights from the Academy for Social Science’s ‘Campaign for Social Science’ which aims to raise the profile of social science in the public, media and parliament. One of the campaigns recent publications, Positive Prospects, which can be found here, explores career options for social scientists and looks at destination data for those who graduate with a social science qualification. Sharon implored us all to consider the ‘long-term health’ of the social sciences and use the data and evidence that exists, such as that shared within Positive Prospects, to makes a compelling case for the inherent value of the social sciences.

Sharon Witherspoon & extract infographic from ‘Positive Prospects’


The day closed with a debate, chaired by University of Leeds Faculty of Social Sciences Executive Dean, Professor Jeremy Higham, and with contribution from Dr Emma Wincup, Research Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and Professor Karl Spracklen, Leeds Beckett University. The key question of the debate was:

How can we champion the social sciences in the future such that they continue to play a central role in Schools, Colleges and Universities in teaching and research?

The debate drew together the different messages from the day’s speakers as we heard from a diverse audience of students, researchers, and teachers/facilitators, even including some international perspectives about experiences and perceptions of the social sciences abroad.

A key message from this session that was echoed by many voices was the power that the social sciences have in tackling challenges and implementing solutions – whilst other disciplines, particularly STEM, are often credited with finding answers, cures and antidotes to global challenges, the social sciences are essential in informing the implementation of such solutions, helping consider the bigger picture, and thinking about the real effect at a human level.

This event forms part of an ongoing conversation about how we can best champion the social sciences and most effectively articulate their value. If you have anything to add or share, we’d be really pleased to hear from you – lssi@leeds.ac.uk.