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10th March 2020
The ASPECT Launch event: a Bloomsbury SET perspective

On 21 November, members of the Bloomsbury SET steering group travelled to Manchester for the launch event for ASPECT, another consortium funded by Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund. Like the Bloomsbury SET, ASPECT seeks to bring together knowledge exchange professionals, interdisciplinary researchers, and industry partners to solve some of the world’s great challenges. ASPECT – which stands for A social sciences platform for entrepreneurship, commercialisation and transformation – is led by the London School of Economics and Political Science (a member of Bloomsbury SET) and brings together the Universities of Manchester, Sussex, Oxford, and Sheffield. You can find a thorough re-cap of the lively launch event (to which I’m indebted for many of the quotes below) here.

ASPECT focuses specifically on the role social scientists can play in addressing global challenges, and in tearing down the institutional barriers to innovation in social science disciplines. At the event we heard from Professor Julia Black, Strategic Director of Innovation at the LSE, of the need to create new models of commercialisation for the social sciences. Unlike in STEM, commercialisation is not necessarily IP-focused but is about scaling up business models, applying know-how, and creatively analysing and visualising data — or as Professor Geoffrey Crossick called it back in 2006, knowledge transfer without widgets.

Dr Joanne Tippett from the University of Manchester described this concept elegantly at the ASPECT launch: “Social scientists don’t make things that hurt when you drop them on your toes.” Those of us who work in social science commercialisation were nodding along as she  told us that the work of social scientists was often to do with integration or “making things work a bit better”. Commercialisation in the social sciences is therefore a highly iterative and dynamic process and not necessarily one in which it is easy to pinpoint transformative impacts.

This concept is all too familiar to me as a knowledge exchange professional working in an arts, humanities, and social science institution within Bloomsbury SET. SOAS is unique in the consortium: we cover a mix of cultures, languages, religions and traditions, many in dynamic, fast developing regions, which are assuming an increasingly important strategic role in global health affairs. However, we struggle at times to assign a value to our contribution – particularly during the early stages of research where we often have to make this case to fellow researchers for whom implementation feels far off in the distant future. Making things work a bit better (as described by Dr Tippett), for instance using deep understanding of a culture to ensure high uptake of a vaccination programme, can be the difference between a successful implementation or a disastrous (and expensive!) failure – but often this is not recognised at the early stages of research translation.

That said, the presenters at ASPECT gave me a renewed enthusiasm to continue making the case for the importance of the arts, humanities and social science perspective in deploying research in the real world. Professor Colette Fagan, Vice-President for Research at the University of Manchester, reminded us that “answers to some of our biggest challenges can’t be found without the social sciences.” This was particularly poignant listening to the presentations from small businesses who were addressing the need for sustainablity through green entrepreneurialism. In all cases the products being sold (whether eyewear, bath products, or even a football team!) depended on scientists and manufacturers but it is social scientists who can help to develop sustainable and growing businesses, understand how to market to potential consumers, change people’s behaviour, and drive the implementation of local, national and global policy change.

Jess Pavlos, Knowledge Exchange Manager in SOAS Research & Enterprise Directorate