For the past year the repeated government invocation has been that it will “follow the science”. As the world knows, the general direction of scientific advice, although there have been occasional dissenters and differences of emphasis, has been surefooted and mainly right – the government’s responses less so. As deadly calamity succeeded calamity, the Johnson government has finally become more willing to really “follow the science”. The measured, data-driven – and so far successful – exit from the current lockdown is in part due to those lessons being learned.
However, keeping Covid at bay once lockdown has been left behind will require new disciplines of research assuming first-order importance – and which also need to be followed with equal diligence. Beyond Covid, they have an evidence-based insight on many of the challenges that confront the country – from regional inequality to promoting innovation, from the recurrent causes of systemic ill health to educational failure. Step up the social sciences.
Already geographers, social epidemiologists and economists are examining why Covid-19 is proving more stubborn to eradicate in different parts of the country. It is those areas within towns that are poorer, with multi-occupied housing, with lower levels of educational attainment, patchy access to broadband and whose members have to travel to work on methods of public transport that have emerged as Covid hotspots. For some, social distancing is a fantasy; working from home wholly unrealistic and self-isolating impossible. In the face of this, society cannot shrug its shoulders. Within these hotspots the virus can spread, mutate and reinfect even more people again. Like Victorians who became aware that clean air, clean water, sewerage and inoculation could not be restricted to those who are better off – the conditions of the most disadvantaged people in society affected everyone – we are learning the same lesson. Enabling everyone to avoid the virus and live normally means an assault on all forms of deprivation.
Social science also has insights into the vexed debate about Covid passports. Personal liberty is precious – but staying uninfected and alive even more so, of course. No return to even quasi-normality is possible without individuals being confident the people next to them sharing a bus, a train, a pub, a workplace, a club, a cinema or a sports event are Covid-free. Without some uniform standard, we know enough about social behaviour to be certain that society will invent its own patchwork quilt of uneven certification. And such a fragmented, save-those-who-can approach will be far more divisive than any thorough national scheme.
Just as there are common social rules about driving standards, personal hygiene and interactions between the genders, so there are common social rules about vaccination. It is a universal social obligation. The more people who have it – with obvious exemptions for those who cannot be vaccinated out of conviction, particular circumstance or underlying health conditions, mitigating concerns about discrimination – the safer and more confident everyone will be about rejoining society. If the government were to establish a social-science Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which I believe it should do urgently, it would likely find overall backing for its stance on Covid passports – although I am sure there would be dissenters as already occurs with Sage. Social science, like the sciences, exists in a world of balancing probabilities rather than cast-iron certainties.
Social science studies society in all its manifestations – where and how we live, economic activity, the dynamics of health, education, management, law, the wellsprings of wellbeing and humanity’s interactions with nature – backed by the careful marshalling of data and rigorous attempts to establish causation rather than correlation. Quantitative analysis is supported by case studies and oral witness, adding to the depth of research.
In Britain social science remains an undersung success story. For example, over the next three years the LSE’s Centre of Economic Performance (where I am an associate) is teaming up with the Resolution Foundation to understand how the economy will develop to 2030 and recommend reforms. The Institute for Fiscal Studies is in the throes of a pathfinder study on the causes and impact of, and potential solutions to, inequality. Around the country there are brilliant individuals and teams working on ageing, health equity, the robustness of international supply chains, the origins of happiness, police morale, how to reshape employment law to de-gig the economy, the social roots of illnesses like cancer and obesity, the social consequences of the climate crisis – and much more.
Societal dysfunction and disadvantage are the grievances driving so much of our politics, especially the rise of nationalism, as putative answers to complaints that at bottom are social in origin. Better knowledge of social science is obviously not a universal source of relief – nationalism isn’t only about grievance. But had its insights been better noted and acted on over decades, people in Britain as a whole would now surely be more at ease with themselves, more prosperous and cross-party coalitions on thorny issues such as care or property taxation would have been easier to build.
As the incoming president of the Academy of Social Sciences, created to put social science more on the map, my task is to build on this mass of evidence to make its findings even more part of the national conversation. As we emerge, blinking into the spring sunlight, to enjoy an outdoor drink and meet with friends, there is optimism in the air. Let’s make sure there are no more lockdowns. Follow the social science!