Cover: Understanding social sciences, humanities and arts for people and the economy (SHAPE) R&D in the UK and internationally

Understanding social sciences, humanities and arts for people and the economy (SHAPE) R&D in the UK and internationally

Published Jul 27, 2023

by Isabel Flanagan, Dominic Yiangou, Cecilia Ang, Sarah Parkinson, Susan Guthrie

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Research Questions

  1. How is R&D data from SHAPE disciplines collected and counted in the UK economy and business sectors and how does this vary by sector?
  2. Does UK R&D data collection adequately recognise R&D activities taking place in sectors most closely related to SHAPE subjects, and does this vary by industry (particularly in the services sector)?
  3. What barriers prevent these activities from being categorised as R&D (e.g., the implications of using tax credits as primary incentives for R&D)?
  4. How do practices in the UK compare to those in other countries when it comes to reporting and classifying R&D?
  5. Based on a deeper understanding of the evidence, how might systems of R&D classification be reformed or re-evaluated to better account for SHAPE R&D activities?
  6. What are the potential opportunities and challenges associated with the application of quantum computers and simulators to the life sciences?

The British Academy commissioned RAND Europe to conduct a research project on 'Understanding the social sciences, humanities and arts for people and the economy (SHAPE)  Research and Development (R&D) in the UK and internationally'. The project was commissioned in response to concerns that current definitions of business R&D used in UK government datasets do not fully capture the extent and role of SHAPE R&D in the UK economy (Hasan Bakhshi, Breckon and Puttick 2021). A narrow definition of R&D, which does not fully recognise the contribution of the arts, humanities and social sciences, risks undervaluing the contribution of SHAPE R&D (Hasan Bakhshi, Breckon and Puttick 2021).

This report aims to further investigate these issues and develop a fuller picture of the way SHAPE R&D is understood and captured in the UK economy and more widely. A mixed methods approach is taken through five work packages (WPs). Data collection methods include: a literature review, interviews, and data analysis. Evidence across these methodologies is triangulated to identify key messages pertaining to SHAPE R&D in the UK and internationally. For the international comparative analysis, five countries (Denmark, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland) are included. This report also includes analysis of key R&D industries in the UK: arts, entertainment and recreation; financial and insurance activities; information and communication; manufacturing; professional, scientific and technical activities; and wholesale and retail. These industries were chosen based on their high levels of R&D expenditure, contributions to the wider UK economy and overlap with SHAPE subjects and skills.

Key Findings

Main UK findings:

  • Business R&D is concentrated in a small number of key sectors, and most of these employ many non-science graduates.
  • Business R&D activity can be defined in many different ways, but stakeholders often implicitly associate R&D with STEM.
  • R&D employment data suggests SHAPE R&D comprises a small proportion of all business R&D.
  • Collaboration is key to SHAPE R&D.
  • Several sectors in which SHAPE plays an important role have a low level of engagement with R&D tax credits.

Main international findings:

  • International comparators have broader R&D definitions which are more likely to recognise SHAPE R&D activities. Other countries use a more inclusive definition of R&D than the UK.
  • However, the inclusion of SHAPE in R&D definitions of R&D is often implicit rather than explicit.
  • Data on R&D is typically captured using surveys.
  • Tax credits are commonly used and provide another useful dataset on R&D expenditure.
  • Very few countries produce breakdowns of SHAPE and non-SHAPE R&D which makes international comparisons difficult.


We outline three key recommendations to how SHAPE R&D can be more recognised in the UK.

  • Capture information on SHAPE R&D in routine data collection. Understanding the extent and importance of SHAPE R&D to UK business is critical to enable planning of skills needs.
  • Make definitions of R&D clear and consistent and engage with key industry stakeholders to ensure clarity and understanding. Lack of clarity can impact the consistency and quality of data to support decision making.
  • Consider person-centred measures of R&D and measures of expenditure. Analyse the role and movement of people and their skills and capabilities to capture the diverse contributions that SHAPE graduates can make to R&D.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was commissioned by the British Academy and conducted by RAND Europe.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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