The Royal Society of Edinburgh is pleased to respond to the Economic & Social Research Council’s Year 2000 Review of their Thematic Priorities. The RSE is Scotland’s premier learned society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with substantial experience of research in the social sciences.

A key cross-cutting issue will be the perception, and methods, of assessing risk. Society as a whole now seems to be demanding standards of risk-avoidance and control that are much greater than prevailed in the past. This will have impacts upon the development and acceptance of new technology, on health, the environment and innovation in general.

The specific questions raised in the consultation document are addressed below:

Q1 Are there any particular research issues, falling within one or other of the ESRC's current Thematic Priorities, which are likely to become significantly more or less important over the next five years?

Economic Performance and Development: The role of institutions and government policy in determining the development of countries, or regions, is one area which will continue to be important. For instance, current regional policy initiatives at the national and EU level will undergo considerable reforms in the early 21st century and it will be vital for policymakers to be informed on what active regional aid policies can and cannot do.

Environment and Sustainability: The question of rural development will be especially important in the Scottish context, given the nature of the distribution of populations and the peripherality of Scotland within the European union. Other increasingly important areas will include the social and economic impacts of environmental policy and regulation.

Globalisation, Regions and Emerging Markets: Issues surrounding the development of regional economies will become increasingly important and will be allied to political trends granting greater policy and decision-making power to regions. Work on the promotion of regional economic development, in the context of over riding supranational and national policy constraints, will also be important. The increasing economic and financial integration of Europe will also be an important impact on how national policies affect the economic performance of individual countries and regions.

Governance, Regulation and Accountability: Interest in regulation and accountability might eventually wane as any increases in efficiency from yet greater regulation progressively diminish.

Technology and People: The social shaping of technologies, the exploitation of technologies and the impact of new technologies on people will all become more important over the next five years.

Knowledge, Communication and Learning: Communication with, and through, machines will become of huge importance to growth and societal development, because of the ubiquity and portability of information-accessing devices. Higher education will also be crucial in economic as well as cultural and social development.

Lifespan, Lifestyles and Health: The implications of advances in medical science, and society's attitudes to and methods of dealing with drugs (such as alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and other soft drugs) are likely to become of increasing importance in the next 5 years. Given current demographic trends in the UK and other Western societies, the impact of aging on the ability to acquire new knowledge, to adapt to changing social and environmental circumstances, and to cope with age-related physical and cognitive impairment, will also be of growing importance

Q2 Are there any new research areas of general promise which in the opinion of your members should be included within the existing themes?

Economic Performance and Development: New promising research areas include regional economics, income distribution, internet/ e-commerce, and macroeconomic policy.

Environment and Sustainability: An important new area would be the role and impacts of tourism. There are also new dimensions in relation to the social and economic aspects of the implementation of the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan thatwill require research.

Globalisation, Regions and Emerging Markets: New research areas could include Economic and Monetary Union and the long-term impact on the economic geography of Europe.

Governance, Regulation and Accountability: An important new area, following Scottish and Welsh devolution, would be New Government Structures.

Technology and People: New research areas could focus on where new technologies raise novel issues about privacy and security, as well as on the assessment of risk, to both individuals and society from using these new technologies. Methods of risk assessment, and their acceptance by Government (on behalf of society and by individuals) is an area of research that is currently growing, and has been the subject of considerable study by a working party of the Church of Scotland, and will certainly become more important in the future as we gain speed in establishing new technologies.

Knowledge, Communication and Learning: Important new research areas could include the issues of communication between researchers and users in ways that promote users' effective learning from research knowledge; representation of interpersonal knowledge to support spoken interaction with computational devices for education and information retrieval; and representation and communication involving more than two agents, focussing on how the social dynamics in the group affect negotiations, disagreements and the formation of a consensus.

Lifespan, Lifestyles and Health: New research areas could include responses to new diseases, e.g. BSE, AIDS, and direct social and political changes impacting on the incidence and management of illness, e.g. (a) change in roles of males and females; (b) the rise of private medicine; (c) change in roles of health professionals; (d) integration of health and social care resources; (e) rise in stress levels with changing employment practices; (f) diet and impact on health and (g) the concept of "Centres of Excellence" in health care and research. Similarly, research on the social and economic consequences of current progress in understanding the genetic component of susceptibility to disease at individual level is needed, for example, on the impacts on personal and family attitudes to disease, affordability of insurance, and family spending patterns.

Q3 Are there any major emerging topics which could form the basis of new themes?

The existing themes already broadly encompass most areas of research in the social sciences, however, some major emerging topics which could form the basis of new themes include, 'Financial Markets and Services', which play a major role in economic development, and which have a major influence over the way in which policymakers behave; e-commerce, and how it will change drastically the world in which we buy and sell, live and work; and the legal system, and in particular its economic efficiency.

As noted above in our introductory comments, issues relating to risk need to be addressed. Research is essential on the perception, and methods of assessing risk; and on social and economic factors associated with differences and changes in the public perception of risk, including the impact of the public understanding of science on perception of risk.

Q4 How well equipped is the social science research base to undertake work in the areas identified in questions 1-3 in relation to (i) trained researchers and (ii) resources such as specialist library and data resources?

Critical to the future development of the social sciences is the problem of trained researchers in areas where skills are very marketable- particularly economics, management studies, and accountancy. Job market opportunities outside the academic sector, the imposition of student loans and fees, together with the extremely low level of academic salaries, is making it increasingly difficult to recruit British graduates to doctoral programmes and therefore is leading to a major problem in recruiting future academic staff.

Q5 The government is running the second national Foresight Programme which will report in autumn 2000. The Council through its themes and support for social science research can have an important input into Foresight. Are there new research areas which correspond to the Foresight Panels which may also be included in Councils themes?

T here are a number of new research areas which correspond to the second Foresight Programme’s Foresight Panels which could be included in the Council’s themes including civil justice, crime prevention and fraud (with regard to the Crime Prevention Panel), and the changing effects on society of diseases such as dementia (relevant to both the Ageing Population and Healthcare Panels). Attempts to deal with the economic and social consequences of diseases such as dementia may affect society in as yet unforeseen ways.

Additional Information
For further information, please contact the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands


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