Skip to main content

Not Just STEM: Why We Need to Fund the Social Sciences

An interview with Sir Cary L. Cooper, the most decorated American psychologist in all of England.
Sir Cary Cooper Sociologist

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, K.B.E. (Photo: Lancaster University)

Social science in America has become a political act. Evidence-based conclusions are far less modish than ideological ones, to the point where governors are changing the mission statements at public universities to forestall potentially progressive policy interventions. Our national fear of the pointy-headed has coupled with political animosity, among some on the right, toward what they perceive as touchy-feely social engineering advocated by proponents of the so-called “soft” sciences. This reflexive political aversion to social engineering is a myopic extension of small-government orthodoxy, but anyone engaged in making or disputing laws must recognize that social engineering is intrinsic in governance, and that non-intervention can be its own type of engineering—call it a “policy intervention by omission.”

Things are less dire in the United Kingdom for social scientists—but dire nonetheless. In the United States, the National Science Foundation is re-directing more and more funding from the social sciences to the “hard sciences,” with a tilt toward the STEM subjects; in the U.K., funding has also skewed toward physics and engineering and away from sociology, though at a slower rate, and without anything resembling the doctrinaire political pressures of the States.

“Social scientists may be forgiven for being troubled by U.K. trends in funding undergraduate training and the ‘impact’ agenda in research,” write professors Jonathan Michie and Cary L. Cooper in the introduction to Why the Social Sciences Matter, a new, decidedly “big picture” collection of essays on various topics of moment and how the empirical study of society has been central to our understanding of child development, marriage and divorce, crime rates, mental and physical health, and the rise and fall of economies. “Big or small,” Michie and Cooper write, “problems need solutions and solutions need to be based on accurate and suitable information, and on a proper understanding of the issues involved.” There is a subtext to some of these more straightforward pronouncements—do we really have to spell it out for you guys?—but they do need to spell it out, especially for American audiences. And so they made a book.

Cooper himself co-authors the second chapter, on the importance of well-being as a civic good and workplace necessity, and Cooper’s co-editor, Jonathan Michie, president of Oxford University’s Kellogg College, contributes a chapter on economics and sustainable growth. Other chapters touch on climate change, food security, the Arab Spring, and recycling. Why the Social Sciences Matter is at heart an urgent expression of faith in the methodologies and social impact of non-STEM sciences, a convincing manifesto for the central place that empirical social criticism must take in policy-making.

I reached Sir Cary Cooper at his home in England on Wednesday to discuss the future of funding for the social sciences, public health, and why the Queen gave him a K.B.E.

Sir Cary! Funding in the U.S. for social science is pretty bleak these days, and very political. Is it scary in England, too?

We have the same problem in the U.K.: The STEM subjects get more funding and are highlighted by government all the time as needing more. Social sciences get funding, but not to the same extent. The humanities and social sciences both suffer. You’re right. The same thing applies for sociologists in England, in comparison with the STEM subjects.

And you would probably agree that we need that research now as much as ever.

Absolutely. The social sciences by rights should be central. If we had evidence-based policy rather than ideological policy, the social sciences would probably contribute a heck of a lot more than the STEM subjects. Education, old age, child development—the social sciences make a contribution in all these areas. However, you are right—in the U.K. we don’t have that same issue. The social sciences aren’t considered political.

The book reads like a very disciplined manifesto.

What we’re saying is we can provide evidence-based policy that will help all aspects of life: social care, health care, education—that’s our raison d’être, in the end. We can do that, and do it much more powerfully than the STEM subjects can. You know what it is, really? It’s trying to show the politicians, policymakers, people in general, that social sciences are not a soft, fuzzy area; our work actually makes a contribution to everything. Say we had absolutely definitive evidence that climate change was occurring, and we need to take steps. In the end, that’s all about behavior change, isn’t it? All the science in the world, all the engineering, in the end it has to get people to change their behavior for it to be effective. Medical science says stop smoking, right? Who has the skills to make that happen? Psychologists, perhaps—who knows—but not medics; we do the research that changes human behavior.

You can have all the great STEM in the world, all the greatest engineering, all the greatest medical research, but if you don’t change people’s behavior, there’s no point in it. If you can’t get people to accept it, a vehicle to accept it, whether an economic incentive or a community need or an emotional need, you’re not going to change behavior. All that science was for naught.

Is this also a pitch for some of that hard-science cash?

Well, the objective is not, “Let’s divert money.” To be honest, we want to work in conjunction with the STEM disciplines, not in opposition. We don’t see ourselves in England being in opposition to the Royal Society; quite the opposite. We see the Academy of Social Sciences and the Royal Society working together.

Tell us about your work advising legislators in Great Britain.

Until I stepped down two weeks ago, for the last six years I was the chair of the Academy of Social Sciences in the U.K., a body made up of 47 learning societies and about 90,000 social scientists. About every three months, in the heart of government, near parliament, we always hold a two-hour lunchtime meeting where we invite all the MPs, ministers, and relevant senior people, to show them what the social sciences do. “Making the Case,” we call it. “Making the Case: Well-Being in the Workplace,” and so forth. It’s really powerful, and the politicians listen. They care.

You’re an American expat, right?

That’s right—I was born in Los Angeles and I’m an American who’s lived here for 50 years! I became a British citizen about 20 years ago. In 1965 I came over for graduate school, and never went back.

How does it feel to be a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire?

Well it's funny because I’m a dual citizen. I got my CBE in 2001, and that was for what I do specifically—the field of occupational health psychology, improving health among employees in the first place. Then, because I’ve done more work with the social sciences generally, in June 2014 I was knighted by the Queen for my contributions to the social sciences. Now, there are not many sociologists on that list. We’ve had lots of academic medics get it, we’ve had several economists, we get lots of people in the STEM subjects. So I was really privileged on behalf of the Academy of Social Sciences for that. They announce it in June; in November I went to Buckingham.

What is even more awesome for me: I came to the U.K. as a graduate student exactly 50 years before I got the K. And my parents were both immigrants, my father Russian-Ukrainian, my mother Romanian, so for a first-generation American, on behalf of the U.S., on behalf of my parents who weren’t here to see it, and also the acceptance, I thought, the country accepting me. You can’t get a more ultimate acceptance than a knighthood. It’s a one-act play, life; you make contributions, you do things as a social anthropologist, somewhere along the line I think it’d be nice if someone recognized you for it. All people need recognition. That’s what psychology teaches you.