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Business R&D in the arts, humanities and social sciences

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What R&D in the arts, humanities & social sciences looks like in a business setting, and why it matters

This policy briefing is based on research which starts from two premises. First, the government has made strong commitments to increasing investment in research and development (R&D) as a way to address economic, social and global challenges. It is unquestionable that investments in research and innovation have made innumerable improvements and contributions to lives and livelihoods. These benefits are a result of research and innovation insights from all disciplines, but this broad-based contribution does not translate into policymakers’ definitions of R&D, nor does it sit well with R&D statistics. 

In particular, the model by which governments understand R&D is structured toward STEM-based research activities and so does not map effectively on to knowledge creation in the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS). There is a risk of a “gulf” between how R&D happens and the policies that support it. 

Second, the Government has a target of investing 2.4% of GDP in R&D by 2027, with the aim of boosting the UK’s innovation performance, increasing to 3%. The UK economy is 80% service based. It contains fast growing, internationally competitive sectors like the creative industries. Understanding and measuring R&D in the services sector in particular, with its origins in AHSS disciplines may have vital significance for the 3% target, and for the direction of policies to promote innovation and economic growth.

Without the right definitions and tools to measure R&D, and effective policies in place to support it, the Government risks ignoring the full value of R&D in the UK economy, and missing out on incentivising investment in innovation in AHSS-related sectors and activities. Rectifying this could lead to a host of benefits for the UK economy, society, and productivity.  

This policy briefing summarises the main findings from a research study which addresses this issue and presents implications for policy. It draws on a detailed literature review, desk research of data sources, and interviews and case studies from thirteen businesses across different sectors. It is structured around ten headline findings which tell a story about the broad nature of R&D in the arts, humanities and social sciences, the more selective interpretation of the definition of R&D in UK policymaking, the limits this imposes on accurate data collection, the implications for business understanding, and the opportunities for more effective research and innovation policymaking. 

Please reference this paper as:

Bakhshi, H., Breckon, J. and Puttick, R (2021) Business R&D in the arts, humanities and social sciences. London: Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and Nesta.  Available from: 

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  • Professor Hasan Bakhshi MBE

    Professor of Economics of the Creative Industries and Director of Creative PEC.

  • Jonathan Breckon

    Jonathan Breckon is an independent consultant and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London. Previously, he led Nesta's Alliance for Useful Evidence for nine years, and open network championing the smarter use of research and evidence. Before Nesta, he was Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the AHRC, and has had policy roles at the Royal Geographical Society, Universities UK, and the British Academy.

  • Ruth Puttick

    Ruth Puttick is a Senior Research Associate at Nesta, runs a research consultancy, and is in the final stages of a PhD in political science and urban studies. She previously worked at Nesta, leading large-scale studies into public and social innovation. More recently she was at the global management consultancy, Tony Blair Associates, where she helped establish and manage the policy and research team in the government advisory practice. She has written extensively on government innovation, reform and impact, and acts as an advisor to a range of governments, philanthropic foundations, charities, and think tanks.

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