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Big Data and Social Science Research

The availability massive data bases and the ability to mine those has opened possibilities of data-based research to  understand social phenomena,  but social science in its present form in the developing world may not be able to meet the challenge. While the clamour for open data and open science/social science should continue no doubt , equal attention should be paid to the demand side, the demand –side for social data. Do traditional university departments and think tanks devoted to social science and media have the capacity to use such data? Do traditional media which have the responsibility to bring the research to the public sphere have the capacity to do so?

This lacuna was highlighted in the Round Table on Consultation on Science and Social Science Research organized by the Centre for Culture Media and Governance of the Jamia Millia Islamia University and Canada’s IDRC during 25-26 November, 2013. (http://indianmedialogue.com/2013/11/25/roundtable-on-asia-science-and-social-science-research-councils/).

As pointed out by Mr. Sukhadeo Thorat of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, only 2% of research funding in India is directed towards social science research with 20% allocated for medicine and other 80% for engineering and other sciences). Although the  total amount of funding  was not mentioned, a remark that the USD 2 million or so dedicated for spending by IDRC for the think tank initiative in India is larger than the total budget for social science research in India is an indicator of the paucity of funding for social science research in India.

India may follow the example of China to consolidate its 15 or so councils to a few covering science, engineering, medicine, social science and so on. The success of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is a case in point. During the last decade China has been able to surpass India by leaps and bounds in social science publications which are indexed under the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI). Whether India will take a similar approach is yet to be seen, but  throwing more money into social science research in simply not a viable option for smaller developing countries.

Results of our IDRC funded project on quality through global connectedness (http://idl-bnc.idrc.ca/dspace/handle/10625/30581) gives us some alternative approaches.  In a survey of quality of humanities and social science and humanities (SS&H) faculty in universities in Sri Lanka carried out in 2004/2005 period as part of the project   we found that 23% of faculty had no post-graduate qualifications and 41% had received theirs locally from among a set of selected departments in five local universities.  While young scientists in developing countries continue to get exposure to state of the art science in developed countries through graduate work such opportunities are few in social sciences. As a result many social scientists in the developing world tend not to move far from their home university to complete their PhDs, if they complete such at all.

A second observation is the fact ISI-indexed social science research in Asia science consist of high percent of  research conducted in partnership with faculty in medicine, science or engineering. This observation seem to hold true for even advanced institutions like University Hong Kong where the ISI-indexed publications for year 2000-2005 consisted of several collaborations between the departments of economics and faculties medicine, for example.

These observations two approaches for further research on developing the social science research capacity. First is the feasibility of consolidating governmental and international donor support for massive effort in PHD training and secondly incentives for collaborations between social science and hard sciences within the universities and new ways for universities to learn from the emerging data science capacity in the corporate world.

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