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Putting humanities and social sciences at the heart of the Industrial Strategy

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Guest post by Alun Evans, Chief Executive of the British Academy.

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Licence: Creative Commons Attribution B_Me

Peter Hennessy, the doyen of British political history, and one of the British Academy’s eminent fellows, recently pointed out that, since 1945, there have been no fewer than 8 industrial strategies, and that they appear now with ever greater frequency than in the past.

He set the challenge to government of how to make this latest iteration better and more lasting that the previous versions.

I have long argued that the humanities and social sciences must be at the heart of any industrial strategy. Why? Quite simply because the UK has a service-led economy. That sector contributes some 80% of our national wealth.

We lead the world in fields as diverse as the creative industries, financial services, many of the professions such as law and architecture and, of course, in higher education and research. The humanities and social sciences are central to the contribution to our economy of those sectors.

So I was delighted that we – the national academy for the humanities and the social sciences – used our convening power to host for a session with Alex Chisholm, the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, on the government’s Industrial Strategy and its Grand Challenges here at the British Academy.

The event brought together some of our leading British Academy Fellows, senior officials from across government and representatives from the other national academies.

What are industrial strategies for?

Fundamentally they are about identifying how our country can prosper and the people within it flourish, about playing to our strengths whilst also addressing our weaknesses.

Asking ourselves, how we can best position ourselves for the future including the 4 Grand Challenges identified in the current strategy:

  • artificial intelligence and data
  • clean growth
  • the future of mobility
  • an ageing society

There was broad agreement around the table that the Grand Challenges identified in the strategy were the right ones and we had a wide-ranging conversation about each of them.

The breadth of the points made matched the breadth of the challenges themselves and the academic disciplines that were in the room.

For me, a key theme of the evening was that our challenges are not actually technical at all, that the technologies are either largely there or capable of being developed at pace.

What is far more challenging is bringing people along, ensuring public trust and engaging with consumers to adopt and adapt to new technologies. And the overarching critique offered from our Fellowship on the Grand Challenges – that they needed to be more focused on people – was broadly accepted.

But none of this will be straightforward. The discussions also brought home for me the immense task that the government has set for the nation with the Grand Challenges.

These are complex societal and economic challenges. None of them are easy to solve. If they were, we would have cracked them long ago. But there are real opportunities here and real prizes to be won, in terms of increased national property, if we get it right.

Addressing these so-called 'wicked issues' is exactly what brings out the very best in the British Academy’s Fellowship.

By applying our shared wisdom and expertise, across all the disciplines we represent, we can make a significant contribution to addressing the Grand Challenges.

The session illustrated the energy and appetite that exists within the British Academy to support the government in its endeavours. So we look forward to many more opportunities to do just that.

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