Advancing breakthroughs with Social Science and Humanities

With much of the world’s current attention trained on generative artificial intelligence (AI) and technological disruption, have social science and humanities taken a permanent backseat? Does social science and humanities research still cut it in terms of staying relevant to the realities of current times? 

The inaugural Social Science and Humanities Ideas Festival, which was launched on 20 March 2024, addressed these questions, and more. In collaboration with Ministry of Education (MOE), Singapore Management University (SMU) is one of the institutions organising a series of events for the Ideas Festival for students, professionals, academics and members of the public. Ranging from roundtable discussions and public lectures to open dialogues and networking sessions, the Ideas Festival aims to demonstrate how social sciences and humanities research could be a driving force to address emerging societal, technological and regional challenges, developments in Singapore and the region.

During the launch event held at the National University of Singapore, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing reassured the social science research community of the Singapore government's steadfast support for their endeavours. He pointed to initiatives such as the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), which continues to provide grants and fellowships to researchers whose work shows potential for impact. As an illustration, SMU Vice President (Partnerships and Engagement) and Professor of Communication and Technology, Lim Sun Sun, was awarded a grant in 2019 to delve into the challenges posed to workers' skills by digital transformation.

Prof Lim's research yielded valuable insights, emphasising that technology adoption cannot be dictated from above. Instead, it must be perceived as useful and user-friendly by individuals to be embraced. Having conducted extensive research on the social impact of technology, Prof Lim emphasised the value of social science research in gaining rich insights on how people’s lives are influenced by emerging technologies.

Speaking at the Ideas Festival launch event, SMU President, Prof Lily Kong underscored the importance of social sciences and humanities research in all aspects of life and its role as a strategic asset for Singapore. She said, “Social sciences and humanities research is a strategic asset that can help Singapore navigate increasingly complex and interrelated challenges confronting our society.  Technologies will undoubtedly be part of the solutions the world needs, but technologies alone, without an understanding of individual psychologies, societal values, political relations, legal and policy frameworks, regulatory regimes and workable business models will simply not suffice.” She also emphasised the criticality of ensuring that such research extends beyond academia. Through intentional design from the onset, researchers can address significant societal challenges through their work and translate their findings into actionable outcomes for relevant stakeholders.

During the panel discussion that followed, Prof Kong advocated for a whole ecosystem approach in charting the trajectory for social science and humanities research in Singapore. She elaborated on how this demands mindset shifts from different groups. Universities must carefully consider how the value of research and its impact should be assessed. Researchers must effectively communicate the value proposition of their work, while external stakeholders must embrace a longer-term perspective when evaluating the evidence of research outcomes.

Drawing on social sciences and humanities research on the social implications of AI, SMU is hosting a public lecture by Prof Lim Sun Sun on 5 April 2024, to discuss the challenges and opportunities that parents and children face, as AI deployment intensifies. For more information on the Social Science and Humanities Ideas Festival, please visit


The full story published in The Straits Times (21 March 2024) is enclosed below: 

Social science research offering good solutions will be recognised: Chan Chun Sing

SINGAPORE – Social science researchers who offer good solutions for Singapore’s challenges will be recognised by local universities and the public service, even if they do not get published in renowned academic journals, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said.

“I know that many researchers feel hard-pressed because though you do so much good work, it is hard for you to get published in world-renowned journals as many people think that Singapore is some little place somewhere in Asia whose solutions may not be applicable to others,” he said on March 20 at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

He was speaking at the launch event of the inaugural Social Science and Humanities Ideas Festival, which runs from March 22 to April 19.

Researchers will share insights on topics like the impact of disruptive technologies on everyday life and mental health.

Speaking at the NUS University Hall to a crowd of social science and humanities researchers from the six autonomous universities in Singapore, Mr Chan said the research community here must be able to work with practitioners, which would be a tremendous advantage.

“If any country in the world can get this done, it must be us. If we come together, we’ll be able to recognise each other’s work, respect each other’s work and this will in turn transcend what many other countries that are bigger, and with more resources, can do.”

While Singapore has learnt from case studies in other countries, it has always prided itself in being able to come up with its own innovative solutions for its unique problems, Mr Chan said.

Citing examples such as the Housing Board’s Ethnic Integration Policy, Singapore’s management of the pricing of the public transport system, and SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), he said these policy innovations bear testament to the importance of the social science and humanities research community.

“Our job is to study what we need, what other people have done, and come up with new solutions that can even inspire.”

He added that collaborative efforts have to go beyond just the academic community to include practitioners, such as government agencies, to take Singapore forward.

“Our competition is not within but, rather, beyond Singapore, and these challenges are beyond what any one particular institution can overcome.”

The minister assured the social science research community that the Ministry of Education and the Government will continue to support their work.

For example, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) has been awarding grants and fellowships to researchers whose work shows potential for impact.

Professor Lim Sun Sun, vice-president of partnerships and engagement and professor of communication and technology at Singapore Management University, was awarded a grant in 2019 by SSRC to undertake a project in collaboration with NUS and the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Prof Lim told The Straits Times that the project’s aim is to understand how digital transformation has challenged the skills of workers by looking at practices in several large multinational companies and small and medium-sized enterprises.

She said one of the organisations introduced a mobile application to improve communication and collaboration among employees who work in different locations. The research team observed challenges in getting the employees to figure out how to use the new digital service.

“One of the important findings we gleaned was that even though digital transformation is very much centred around technology, you cannot just impose it from top down. You have to put humans first because they must find the technology useful and usable before they will actually use it.”

Her team was invited by SSG to share its research findings, as the agency came up with its SGUnited Skills Programme for mid-career workers. The SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package provides job, traineeship and skills training opportunities for Singaporeans.

As someone who has extensively researched the social impact of technology, Prof Lim said social science research is vital to get rich insights on how people’s lives are influenced by emerging technologies.

“Social science insights that shed light on the human dimension is so critical for understanding how to make these technologies work much better, in accordance with our social norms, our cultural values, as well as our sense of well-being,” she said.

Mr Chan said researchers and the autonomous universities here have been encouraged to broaden their definition of impactful research.

Associate Professor Emily Ortega, who heads the psychology undergraduate programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, has been conducting a five-year study since 2021 to explore how 3,000 Singaporeans spend their time and whether the Covid-19 pandemic had affected their routines.

With this study, the first in Singapore that tracks how entire households spend their time, Prof Ortega hopes to shed light on the dynamics of Singaporean families and how they adapt to changes.

The data collected could be analysed in various ways, she said. Comparative studies could be done across the different genders, age groups and housing types, to name a few.

“Do we maybe spend less time during leisure because we are not given the flexibility of time any more, as compared with during the pandemic? What are the implications with that? So I think it’s very interesting to see the trends, and I hope to be able to capture some of that information.”

Photo credit: SMU