An exploratory study
May 2001 – March 2002

I. Introduction and objectives

In September 1997, against the background of the Leeds study for HEFCE on international subject comparisons, SPSG organised for ESRC a two-day private seminar, bringing together UK people from science policy studies with colleagues from Norway, the Netherlands, Australia and the United States to consider international social science comparisons.

The seminar was designed to: ‘help ESRC develop its capacity to commission, manage, interpret and comment on analyses of the comparative position of UK social science…’ Although not intended to be confined to bibliometric methods – those based on published literature - these dominated discussion and only four of the thirteen recommendations in the meeting report were not concerned with them.

The new study, International Social Science Comparisons (ISSC), will undertake some exploratory work in science and technology indicators which runs beyond these conventional bibliometric approaches. This work involves review of what is available internationally, consideration of what new indicators might be built and the key elements of a strategy for the development of data, and for its analysis and use in indicator construction.

II. Rationale

This work is considered timely because:

  • at a conceptual level, work on what might be called ‘social innovation theory’ and in particular the work of Gibbons et al. on ‘The New Production of Knowledge’, suggests a new conceptual framing for science and technology indicators which take account of the changing social context of innovation. In particular it suggests the need for the development of indicators of the perceived social utility of new knowledge, and of its diffusion, take up and use;

  • although at present the social sciences appear in a more secure position in UK science policy, the resource allocation process remains fiercely competitive and ESRC needs to be in a strong position in understanding the scope and limitations of both conventional and new indicators which are deployed, or potentially deployed, in the policy debate. This understanding needs to comprise both international comparisons of the outputs and impacts of social science research, but also comparisons between the social sciences and the natural sciences and engineering.

  • the United States has been pre-eminent in science indicators work and in particular the NSF has been an influential patron of the field. The fact that there are signs of new thinking on indicators in NSF and in particular that they are now active in developing social science indicators suggests that this is a good time to try to assimilate their progress. Further there are signs of renewed collaborative European efforts to confront historic problems of data availability in construction of social science indicators.

III. Work programme

The work will comprise:

  1. critical review of existing activity through review of literature and practice, and through follow-up with selected authors and policy users

  2. an initial expert workshop to assess this material and help set priorities

  3. examination of data availability and quality of a range of sources and critical assessment of their possible contribution in the construction of indicators of:
    - social demands for research
    - research take-up and use

  4. parallel assessment of the potential of more conventional ‘relational’ bibliometric indicators – those which seek to map the relationships between different fields of knowledge – to show the diffusion of social science research and in particular its links to research in the natural sciences and engineering

  5. assessment of the significance of the findings for a second, larger, social science policy workshop which will conclude the study, and consider recommendations on next steps.

IV. The research team

The work has designed to be carried out by a UK team with international collaboration. Each of the three co-workers in the UK team has more than 20 years experience in carrying out or managing research on science and technology indicators. Peter Healey and Harry Rothman co-managed the first science policy study commissioned by the then ABRC, in 1982-84, and have been involved in a number of studies since. They have close links with international work, notably at CNRS and NSF. Sylvan Katz’s record in the field includes the significant study for ESRC ‘Bibliometric Indicators and the Social Sciences' on which this study will build. All have worked together before.

Consonant with maintaining the focus of this time-limited study, international collaboration has been sought in order to:

  • widen the expertise available in the study;
  • help open up routes to other relevant work in the review phase;
  • lay the basis for broader collaboration - at a European or European/North American level - in any subsequent further indicator research and development.

The study has been fortunate in securing the participation of a team of German scholars comprising Drs Gottard Bechmann and Michael Rader of the Institute for Technology Assessment (ITAS) at the Research Centre, Karlsruhe, and Dr Rainer Hohlfeld of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy. Their work under the study will be financed by BMB+F.

V. Intended impacts

From a UK perspective, the research under this study is intended to have impacts on:

  • the debate on funding priorities under the UK science budget
  • the wider UK science policy debate, particularly as regards wider public engagement with science policy
  • the agenda for research and indicators development
  • opportunities for collaboration between European social science funders and researchers in following up the recommendations, in order to provide their own sources of comparative data on the demand for, and impacts of, social science research, and in order to inform priorities under FP6.