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Bright SPARK: what does the future of social science research look like?

Rick Delbridge
Rick Delbridge
Professor of Organizational Analysis, Academic Lead for SPARK and Dean of Research, Innovation and Enterprise, Cardiff University.

Bright SPARK: what does the future of social science research look like?

We hear from Professor Rick Delbridge on Cardiff University’s plans for a Social Science Research Park (SPARK) and how this ‘society super lab’ will drive interdisciplinary research and strengthen collaboration with higher education institutions, businesses and the public sector across the region. 

The increased emphasis on interdisciplinary research and the need to apply it to deliver societal benefit and public value has opened up space for social scientists to contribute to the great challenges of our age.

This very point was made by Sir Mark Walport, chief executive designate at UK Research and Innovation when he observed in the Times Higher: “The impact of anthropological studies funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council in tackling Ebola highlighted that social sciences and humanities are essential to informed policy development and delivery.”

SPARK is being developed as part of the University's £300m Innovation Campus

Adopting a “business-as-usual” approach will certainly not realise the opportunities and aspirations of major contemporary research initiatives, such as the Global Challenges Research Fund or the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

While social scientists have been keen to emphasise the role that they should play in addressing societal issues, such as population growth, migration, poverty and security, this will not be achieved if social science does not mobilise and organise itself. This point was made explicitly by David Sweeney, executive chair designate of Research England, at a recent conference that we hosted in Cardiff, where he called upon social science and humanities to actively seek out opportunities for collaboration.

Universities must lead the way in adopting innovative approaches to supporting interdisciplinary research and industry-academia partnerships. At Cardiff University, the creation of a social science research park, SPARK) builds on our recognised strengths in social sciences and will be home to interdisciplinary research groupings with an outwardly collaborative ethos.

The mission of the SPARK is “to generate economic, environmental and social value through co-developing innovative and effective solutions to societal problems with the public, private and third sectors”.

Cardiff University has worked with influential stakeholders across the Great West region and beyond –  including Nesta, the Economic and Social Research CouncilCardiff CouncilWelsh Government, the Office for National Statistics and IBM – to develop the concept of this ‘society super lab’.  A unique feature of SPARK is that we will be inviting some of our key research partners from the private, public and third sectors to co-locate on-site. We are very keen that SPARK will be a porous and inviting space that encourages engagement with our local communities and that the physical spaces and facilities (including events and exhibition space, a behavioural lab, safe and secure data facilities and visualization suite) will be used by a wide range of partners, including colleagues from across the GW4 Alliance.

The connections that we have with key partners exemplify some of the Great West’s greatest strengths, such as data science expertise and a booming digital economy. Our region also straddles two governments, meaning that social scientists based at SPARK will be in a unique position to conduct comparative research, build an evidence base and influence innovation in the public services. Our vision and ambitions for SPARK chime with the UK’s emerging place-based approach to innovation and economic development (including the Industrial Strategy and the Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU Structural Funds).

Many of SPARK’s future tenants have already been recognised for their interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to research. In the last academic year alone, these research groupings have attracted over £13m investment from research councils, Welsh Government and international partners, such as the US Department of Justice.

Welsh Government selected Y Lab, a joint initiative with Nesta on public services innovation, to run the £5m Innovate to Save programmeWISERD (the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data & Methods) was praised in the Welsh Government’s Independent Diamond Review as a “a major resource for providing knowledge transfer across a wide range of the social sciences”. Welsh Government also co-funded a £6m award with the ESRC to create the new Wales Centre for Public Policy, which will be based in the building.

SPARK provides vital infrastructure for three of the University’s research institutes (Crime and SecuritySustainable Places and Data Innovation’s Social Data Science Lab) enabling them to further develop innovative partnerships within and beyond campus. The ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership will also locate in the building, giving the social science researchers of the future first-hand experience of a collaborative and inter-disciplinary approach.

We think that SPARK could provide the blueprint for the future of social science research, founded on the principles for a successful social lab:

  • Social: bringing together diverse participants drawn from different sectors of society.
  • Experimental: taking an iterative approach to research challenges, prototyping interventions and evaluating various promising solutions.
  • Systemic: seeking solutions that go beyond dealing with symptoms to address the root cause of why things are not working in the first place.

I hope the vision of SPARK (described by David Sweeney as “absolutely brilliant”) inspires social sciences researchers and universities across the Great West to look beyond ‘business as usual’, and to take an innovative approach to developing collaborative and interdisciplinary social sciences research that addresses some of our greatest challenges.

Rick Delbridge is Professor of Organizational Analysis, Academic Lead for SPARK and Dean of Research, Innovation and Enterprise at Cardiff University.

The Social Sciences Research Park at Cardiff University

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