Opportunities for commercialising social science post COVID-19

20th May 2020

We recently surveyed the Aspect community to gauge their opinions on the current challenges and opportunities relating to social science commercialisation – both in general and with regards to the specific topic of digital futures.

In this article, Alex Riley (Aspect Broker at the University of Manchester) and Adam Richards-Gray (Aspect Marketing & Communications Manager) share some of the key insights.


In our recent poll of the Aspect community, we sought opinions on the current challenges and opportunities relating to social science commercialisation – both in general and in relation to the specific topic of digitalisation/digital futures (an area that is of particular relevance to the University of Manchester in the context of its pioneering work through initiatives such as the Digital Futures Network and Digital Futures at Work Research Centre).

Although the survey can only offer a high-level gauge, we were able to draw some insights from the findings in terms of how our community sees the commercialisation landscape – which, in turn, provides food for thought with regards to how Aspect members (as well as knowledge exchange practitioners and social science academics and researchers more broadly) should best align ourselves to take advantage of the opportunities that are seen to exist around social science commercialisation and entrepreneurship.

Tangible opportunities ahead for social sciences

Our survey indicates that once we’ve emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a belief that commercialisation and business engagement in the social sciences will become more important – with around two-thirds stating that it will become much or slightly more important. The counter view, that there would be no change in the importance of commercialisation and business engagement, was held by 1 in 4 respondents. It would be interesting to take a deeper dive into why, and in which areas, this might become more important post COVID-19.

One specific area we looked at as part of the survey was digitalisation/digital futures. Here, 80% of respondents felt that social sciences will either play a very or extremely important role in taking advantage of the opportunities in this area. When asked in which specific sub-area respondents believe social science research commercialisation could have the most impact, the top three responses were: 1) Big data, 2) AI and 3) Automation. Clearly each of these areas are significant in breadth, but the overarching – and positive – takeaway from this finding is that there appears to be tangible scope for social sciences to flourish in this important area.

These findings indicate that there is a great deal to be positive about, and that the post-COVID environment potentially offers a wealth of opportunity for social science commercialisation.  

How ready is social sciences to take advantage of these opportunities? Our survey uncovered some interesting views.

Perceived internal and external challenges

Nearly 80% of respondents felt that there is, at present, limited understanding of the importance of social science commercialisation among academics, researchers and practitioners. The overwhelming view, held by nearly three-quarters of respondents, was that institutions only promote commercialisation and entrepreneurial skills to some extent – with a very small proportion seeing this being promoted to a great extent.

When asked why people felt there is a relative lack of private sector interest in social science commercialisation compared to other disciplines (i.e. STEM subjects), a lack of incentives for academics/researchers to engage with commercialisation, a lack of institutional support and a lack of standardised practices for those in academia to follow were seen as almost equally important. In addition, over three-quarters of respondents cited a lack of understanding within industry as to the value of social sciences.    

The responses to our survey seem to suggest that there is work to do to ensure that social sciences is positioned to take advantage of any emerging opportunities.

Bridging the gap

There appears to be a potential gap here between the current reality of research commercialisation in social sciences and what our survey respondents view as its future potential.

If, as we strongly believe, social science commercialisation does have a more significant role to play in future then as a community how do we take advantage of this opportunity?

This survey highlights a number of factors that might provide a few of the pieces to this puzzle – the importance of ensuring that the value of commercialisation is recognised; ensuring academics, researchers and practitioners have the skill set and support in place to drive initiatives forward; and the need to drive demand for social sciences within industry (and end users in general).

Aspect is playing a critical role here in terms of supporting innovation, entrepreneurship and research commercialisation in social sciences – through offering opportunities for members to share and exchange good practice; our series of funded projects which aim to test ideas and pilot new approaches; and the development of resources to share our insights and learnings with the broader community.

We look forward to continuing to support Aspect members and the wider social science community to take advantage of the opportunities that exist. We hope that you find our resources and case studies to be of value – and you can find out more here about becoming a member of the network.

Photo credit: Lukas from Pexels

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