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Reflections Arising From The New Zealand Knowledge Base: Social Sciences Report

Raewyn Good
Principal Research Liaison Advisor
Social Policy Agency


The Ministry of Research, Science & Technology (MoRST) has recently undertaken a "stocktake" of the social sciences, which has resulted in a report known as The New Zealand Knowledge Base: Social Sciences (1997a). The report is marred by a general invisibility of the non-university-based sectors. In this critique of the report, I consider some possible explanations for this "invisibility", and put forward some suggestions for reducing barriers and building on opportunities.


During 1996, it was decided to compile an assessment of the social sciences using a similar "stocktake" approach to that undertaken in the physical sciences. Dr Roberta Hill (Web Research) was contracted by MoRST to co-ordinate the project. With input from the Social Science Standing Committee of The Royal Society, the fields and sub-fields in the social sciences were identified and field leaders began the complex tasks involved in distilling the fields under a number of headings including:

  • Historical Overview;
  • Strengths;
  • Distinctive New Zealand Characteristics;
  • Gaps in the New Zealand Knowledge Base;
  • New Zealand's Capability; and
  • Opportunities

Dr Hill and a group of the field-coordinating writers then reviewed the field profiles and identified key themes and trends at a half-day focus group meeting, with peer review of the text, editorial refinement and feedback comment. This provided the Overview Section, with participating members from each field or sub-field undertaking a descriptive analysis of their area.

The final version was published by MoRST in November 1997 and made widely available in February 1998.

The Report

The Overview Section is particularly useful in identifying social science strengths and for the identification of gaps and areas requiring further development. However, the Report overall suffers form a bias in favour of the university sector (although it does mention non-discipline-based co-ordinating bodies such as the Royal Society Social Science Committee, the Federation of New Zealand Social Science Organisations and the Association of Social Science Researchers). To illustrate, the authors posit that "most employed social scientists are well into middle age and are likely to retire within the next 10-15 years" and "most of the recruitment of younger social scientists is of non-New Zealanders" (p.8). This may well be true in the university sector, but is a much less accurate description for social scientists employed in the government, private and voluntary sectors. While the ageing of staff may be a problem requiring attention for the universities, this is not the case for other sectors. On the contrary, youth and limited expedience seem to be the salient constraint elsewhere. Pay levels, university tenure, public sector shifts and research funding opportunities have no doubt had some historical influence on the employee age structure!

Despite the emphasis on the university perspective, the Overview Section of the Report calls for a "moving beyond existing divisions between pure and applied research", "developing a strategic research capability and 'cross-policy department' capacity", and regionally based research and development centres, and identifies an opportunity in longitudinal studies (p.8). All of these areas have been identified beyond the universities, in numerous review reports, research surveys and assessments, over the last decade or so.

Unfortunately, working across the sectors is not identified as an opportunity or as a gap. The reference to "departments" cited above seems to refer to university departments, rather than government agencies or a project coalition of agencies from more than one sector. This mode of working is, in fact, increasingly common.

The "stocktake" approach to each of the fields or sub-fields should provide a useful resource in and of itself. The fields include:

  • Economics;
  • Labour, Organisation and Organisation Studies;
  • Political Science;
  • Urban and Environmental Planning;
  • Sociology;
  • Social Anthropology;
  • Human Geography
  • Population Studies;
  • Psychological Science;
  • Education;
  • Media Studies and Communication;
  • Leisure and Recreation Studies;
  • Maori Studies;
  • Women's Studies;
  • Linguistics;
  • History; and
  • Archaeology.

Gaps, Challenges and Opportunities

To me, as a social scientist not working in the university sector, there is an obvious omission in what is an otherwise excellent report. While several field and sub-field authors do acknowledge there are a few social scientists outside the university sector, most do not. In the fields I am familiar with, mention of "the rest" is somewhat selective and sketchy. Given that some 26 per cent of social science research expenditure occurs in the public, voluntary and private sector (MoRST 1997b), and about a third of active social scientists are employed therein (Health Research and Analytical Services 1994), this omission seemed somewhat odd. Why the "invisibility"? Are there structural factors hindering cross-sectoral communication and understanding? Is there some belief that limits the definition of a social scientist by where they are employed? Were there assumptions made about what is and is not a social scientist?

Possible explanations are likely to involve a mix of attitudes, traditions, practices and imperatives which have hindered communication between those employed in the different sectors.

University academics are usually both teachers and researchers with a strong emphasis on the importance of publication. Many build up particular fields of speciality over their career, within a particular academic discipline (fields and sub-fields in the Knowledge Base exercise). Multi-disciplinary projects have been a rarity and the emergence of multi-disciplinary fields such as Population Studies or Women's Studies are somewhat recent. Public and private sector researchers (including the voluntary sector) tend to have been originally trained in a particular discipline but work in multi-disciplinary sections/units/teams on projects which may or may not involve clients with any social science background. Increasing numbers seem to be undertaking further post-graduate training after some work experience. These aspects may have contributed to a perception of specialists versus generalists. There does seem to be a predominance of academics in the professional disciplinary bodies.

If there is a lack of effective communication between the university sector and other social scientists, it may also be a reflection of the age difference referred to above. I remember being told, as a student in my twenties, that people grow into social science as they gain life experience and familiarity with the application of theories and methods in the real world. The theory was the utility of a social scientists increases with age, unlike in some fields of science where the most innovative ideas come young and are refined with age. Thus, with tenure, university academics commonly have been able to work as social scientists well into their sixties, even their seventies, and consequently build up their "knowledge capital" in their specialities.

The students of these academics would be generally younger (even by one or two generations) as they began their careers in the social sciences. Career structures outside the university sector have been somewhat different, and many have faced a choice in mid-life between continuing for the next 20 or more years as social scientists on the same salary, or moving into management or private consulting. Perhaps the past teacher/student relationship in the universities may hinder cross-sector communication in the present! After all, how many people maintain social/professional contact with their teachers from high school?

A further possible explanation for the "invisibility" of non-university social scientists in the report may lie in the imperative on university-based academics to publish their research. Research funding bodies place emphasis on publication records to assist their assessment of the experience and capability of applicants. This perspective immediately places public sector social scientists at a disadvantage as much of their work is for internal clients as part of the policy process, and publication, when it occurs, tends to be internal, too. The private sector social scientists may spend most of their research time working on contracts with strict confidentiality clauses, and client satisfaction rather than publication is the imperative. Social scientists in the voluntary sector are sometimes seen as undertaking advocacy research (regardless of whether or not this is true), and their work tends to appear in non-academic publications which inevitably employ a different set of selection criteria. Access to some research funding would not seem to recognise the fundamental differences to publication records which flow from employment location.

Funding sources may also have made a contribution to sector palisades. There is a tradition of "research grant" rather than "contract project fee" in the university sector, although this has been slowly changing in recent years. The other sectors have a much greater familiarity with client-focused contracts – both in undertaking and commissioning. This difference sometimes surfaces in contract negotiations as "publication" and "censorship" issues and discussions concerning who owns the results. The funder usually insists on ownership, while the academic insists on publication rights and "intellectual capital". Mutual agreement can be a challenge. The experience of even one difficult negotiation can affect subsequent contract procedures, including willingness to tender across the sector divide.

The percentage of time spent in original research should not have influenced the selective omissions of the non-university-based social scientists. It would be interesting to compare time activity reports between a number of social scientists at various career stages. Teaching and marking could well take a disproportionate amount of university-based social science time.

Are these differences real issues? Traditionally it has been possible to operate in largely separate arenas as funding sources have been relatively contained. However, change has been occurring and the criteria on which judgements are based are becoming progressively more important. For example, the Public Good Science Fund was only recently opened up to the public sector (although publication records are still necessary), and while the public sector has maintained significant in-house capacity, there was not a great need to tender specific contracts. The recent media debate between Professor Munz and the administration of the University of Victoria, Wellington, is indicative of stress in the university system.

Where to?

It would seem that the ends of various attitudinal and practice continuums are reasonably well defined (pure versus applied; publication versus confidential to the client; multi-disciplinary versus single disciplinary; etc.).

There are many areas where the knowledge and techniques of the Social Sciences could be usefully applied and where multi-method, multi-disciplinary and multi-sector experience could combine for robust research outputs. The eight Cross-Portfolio Long-Term Strategic Social Science topics announced by the Government (via MoRST) provide but one example where interaction and cross-discipline and cross-sector co-operation will be desirable. The Foresight Project may also act as a catalyst for thinking beyond the territorial precincts of the past.

Perhaps we need to perceive the differences as strengths and (to borrow from Social Anthropology) to develop a "both/and" rather than "either/or" approach. It should be possible, wherever one is employed, to sometimes work on issues and sometimes pursue more discipline-based priorities. It should be possible to form project consortiums which meet the needs of researchers, funders and peers. It should be possible to strengthen the communication and the trickle of people exchanged between the sectors.

We should not have to await the next report on the Social Sciences in order to overcome the gaps and barriers and seize the opportunities. There have been at least 15 such reports in the last 20 years. Perhaps, instead, some up-front consideration of the issues outside the constraints of a contract negotiation would be a start.


Health Research and Analytical Services (1994) New Avenues for Crown Funded Social Science Research, Health Research and Analytical Services, November.

MoRST (1997a) The New Zealand Knowledge Base, Report No 12, Ministry of Research, Science and Technology Te Manatu Putaiao, P O Box 5336, Wellington, November.

MoRST (1997b) Research & Experimental Development Statistics, Publication No 16, Ministry of Research, Science and Technology Te Manatu Putaiao, September.

Cover photo of Social Policy Journal


Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 10

Reflections Arising From The New Zealand Knowledge Base: Social Sciences Report

Jun 1998

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