How are the social sciences responding to COVID-19?

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24th September 2020

From helping to fight the COVID-19 pandemic to re-imagining a society coexisting with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the social sciences have played a key role each step of the way.

As countries from Italy to India went into lockdown in order to buy precious time for vaccine development and for national and local health and public health systems to boost their capacity to confront the epidemic, insights from the social sciences helped to ensure governments crafted and implemented ‘stay-at-home’ policies and communications that people would actually adhere to.

In this article, Wen Chen, LSE School of Public Policy, and LJ Silverman, Head of LSE Generate, explore some of the crucial ways in which social sciences have contributed to the response to COVID-19.

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Behavioural policies helped to generate effective messaging on social distancing, while maintaining public trust, which is key to sustained public adherence through the duration of lockdowns and restrictions that will continue to be in place as lockdowns ease. For example, researchers at the University of Sussex, a member of the Aspect network, showed that COVID-19-prevention behaviour is boosted by simply adding one line to existing NHS and UK Government messaging.

As scientists increasingly raise the prospect of living with the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus for the foreseeable future, social scientists are researching and discussing what such a ‘new normal’ could look like and how we can ensure equitable considerations both in advanced economies and in the Global South.

The following are a few broad areas that social scientists are contributing to in response to COVID-19:

  • Behavioural nudges and public engagement
  • Countering misinformation
  • Economic policy
  • Mental health and wellbeing
  • Technology and privacy
  • Education, skills and training
  • Cities and transport
  • Climate change
  • International development
  • Trade, migration and globalisation
  • Vulnerability

Below, we discuss a few of these areas and highlight examples of how the social sciences at Aspect member institutions are contributing research, policy and innovations.

Mental health and wellbeing

With the public grappling with isolation, death of loved ones, fear and anxiety, experts warn that the enduring psychological trauma will manifest in a historic wave of mental health problems.

Social science researchers at a number Aspect member institutions are studying the experiences of different groups during the pandemic. One project at the University of Bristol looks at the efficacy of nudging with smartphone technology as part of a coordinated plan to develop remote support of positive psychological intervention for university students.

Moreover, recent polling shows that around two-thirds of primary school children are currently feeling lonely – about 50% above normal levels. Another study in Bristol aims to investigate the impact of mandated school closures and isolation on children through monitoring and recording ‘day-to-day realities’ of home schooling attempts and experiences. Based on research, a panel of mental health experts at the University of Sussex, University of Cambridge and University of Reading are urging UK government ministers to prioritise children’s play and socialising over formal learning when easing the Coronavirus lockdown.

Technology and privacy

In a piercing Op-Ed in the midst of the pandemic, Yuval Noah Harari, seminary historian and author of ‘Sapiens’, warns of a looming global crisis of mass state surveillance justified as (temporary) measures to combat the pandemic. Harari notes that for the first time in human history, “technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time.” For example, using an ‘emergency decree,’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorised the Israel Security Agency to deploy surveillance technology used in combatting terrorists to track individuals with Coronavirus.

Social scientists have a critical role to steer policy and discussion such that public consultations are undertaken before governments move to adopt sweeping technology solutions with little protection for privacy and civil liberties. Sociological research from Aspect member institution, the University of Manchester, demonstrates the importance of “making the public an active stakeholder in pandemic preparation and response.” As European governments look to adopt smartphone app-based contract tracing, researchers at the London School of Economics caution the UK government against simply evoking ‘science’ to justify the choice in data collection and storage methodology, but instead to engage the public in a full consultation disclosing data protection and security impact assessments.

Cities and transport

Cities, which are characterised by high population density and public transport, have become ‘hostile hotspots’ in the COVID-19 pandemic. From increasing adoption of remote or flexible working arrangements to the public being actively discouraged to use public transport, some commentators note that COVID-19 may spark an urban exodus as well as increased utilisation of cars for transport.  

Social scientists are leading the discussion on what life in cities could be like under a ‘new normal’. Urban design and planning researchers at the University of Manchester discuss the history of temporary urban use cases arising from crises and suggest the likely endurance of temporary expansions of pedestrian and cycling space in cities in response to COVID-19, which may help to counter a rise in urban car traffic.

Social scientists have also launched digital innovations, including Crowdless, a mobile application that provides live data on the crowdedness of places, such as supermarkets, to enable people to choose the best place and time to visit an establishment while maintaining social distance. While the solution is not limited to cities, it may prove to be most apt for cities, where crowdedness is a fact of life. Crowdless is founded by social science doctorate candidates at Oxford University and the London School of Economics, and have been closely supported by entrepreneurship hubs at both universities. Crowdless has recently been named one of the winners in the Innovate UK competition on “Business-led innovation in response to global disruption caused by COVID-19.”

Supporting the social sciences’ response to COVID-19

Aspect member institutions have been playing an important role in supporting the social sciences’ response to COVID-19, from research to innovation and entrepreneurship.

At the University of Sussex, the Research and Enterprise Division supports academic staff and researchers in commercialising research through incubation, funding support and building partnerships. An example is the key role the Division has played in supporting the Youth@Risk initiative, which has been entered into a Innovate UK competition on “Addressing COVID-19 Challenges in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs).” After being approached by a third sector partner that works to address adult recidivism in Brighton, Making It Out, the Division coordinated efforts with researchers at the psychology, law, criminology, sociology and education departments at Sussex to establish the Youth@Risk initiative. The Division further contributed in building a consortium with a range of partners, including Transport for London, and linked the work to the Crime Research Centre at Sussex. The Research and Enterprise team has further supported the initiative through budget preparation and integrated bid writing assistance, supporting the submission to the Nuffield Strategic Fund and an Innovate UK competition.

Another Aspect member institution, the London School of Economics, supports student and alumni entrepreneurship through its entrepreneurship hub, LSE Generate. LSE Generate supports students through a series of workshops, masterclasses and networking events over the course of the academic year, initiating students into entrepreneurship. Its twice-yearly start-up competition is a popular avenue for students to put their ideas to the test through a series of pitching and judging, and an opportunity to obtain early funding and credibility as a start-up. A newly launched accelerator further supports students and alumni who are ready to scale their start-up through six months of dedicated support, including bootcamps, mentorship, living stipends and an opportunity to pitch for additional funding. Crowdless, described above, has been supported by LSE Generate through this process and it is currently part of the inaugural accelerator cohort.

The links below show some examples of how social scientists at Aspect member institutions are responding to COVID-19:

Conclusion

There is abundant social science research being undertaken at Aspect member institutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The broad areas of current work, listed above, remain important areas of opportunities for the social sciences to contribute leadership, insights and innovations. While some of the findings and implications of the research are made more widely accessible through media coverage and policy recommendations to the government, there remains an opportunity for synergy and support in research, policy advocacy and incubating innovation by university students, staff and alumni.

Aspect is organised into cross-institutional, cross-disciplinary communities, designed to capture and share knowledge across four core areas of practice. The Entrepreneurship Community of Practice meet regularly, to share knowledge and expertise, and identify opportunities to support student entrepreneurship and start-ups from the social sciences.

To find out more about the Entrepreneurship Community of Practice, or to find out more about joining Aspect, visit our Get Involved page


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