ESRC: not in the headlines, but supporting the debate behind them

Not getting credit is a small price to pay for ensuring that social science has a voice, say Jane Elliott and Phil Sooben

April 12, 2016
Newspaper front pages with economics headlines

At the heart of David Walker’s article in Times Higher Education are three questions for the Economic and Social Research Council. First, do we get recognition for the research we fund? Second, do we make a significant contribution to policy debates? And third, are we reflective enough about ourselves as an organisation, and the impact we have had over five decades?

First, David is correct that the priority for the ESRC is that the investments we support – not only established research centres such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, but also data infrastructure, individual researchers and PhD students – have a high profile and maximise the impact of their research. To this end, we provide funding to support, for example, media training, communications advice and an impact toolkit for all researchers. But the ESRC itself is also recognised as supporting a wide range of policy-relevant research, such as our programme on the UK in a Changing Europe. This is providing independent robust evidence on the forthcoming European Union referendum and has been recognised as an authoritative and impartial source by media bodies such as The Daily Telegraph, The Economist and BBC Radio 4.

Second, the ESRC frequently provides evidence on issues across the public policy agenda. For example, during 2015 evidence was submitted to 22 select committee enquiries. We also work closely with our research centres to encourage them to make independent submissions of evidence, such as the Centre for Economic Performance’s response to the recent inquiry on the government’s productivity plan. As David pointed out, we contributed to Sir Charlie Bean’s review on economic statistics, and one of our five current priorities is “productivity” working closely with, among others, the Office for National Statistics.

Since September 2013, the ESRC has been funding the social science arm of the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, which provides evidence briefings for MPs. We work closely with chief scientific advisers and other senior officials from a wide range of government departments and this often leads to collaborative support for specific projects, research centres and data resources such as the Understanding Society study, jointly funded by a consortium of eight government departments plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have also played a central role in the development and funding of the influential network of “What Works” centres.

In response to David’s third question about how we can measure the impact of our research, we have a strong tradition of evaluating the programmes we support and our decisions on both strategy and specific priorities are guided by those evaluations. For example, over the past nine years the ESRC has published 40 impact evaluations covering the value of our data infrastructure, the contributions of skilled social scientists, and the impacts of social science on policy and practice.

The broad portfolio of disciplines and topics covered by the ESRC does make it difficult to capture all of the impact we have had – most people will not be aware that more than a quarter of the academics returned in the 2014 research excellence framework are working in areas covered by the ESRC, from social anthropology to linguistics, psychology and economics.

What David’s article fails to mention is the growing importance of cross-disciplinary and international research. The ESRC has been a partner in all of the six current cross-council programmes, adding a social science perspective on energy use, health and well-being, and food security, for example. And, as demonstrated by the 2013 Elsevier report on the International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base and the recent report by Digital Science on The Implications for International Research Collaboration for UK Universities, international collaboration is becoming increasingly important with just over half of journal articles now being co-authored with international researchers.

The ESRC actively contributes to policy debates and continuously measures the impact of research that we fund. We may not always be credited in media coverage, but that’s a small price to pay for helping ensure social science has a voice that helps to shape society.

Jane Elliott is chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council. Phil Sooben is the organisation's deputy chief executive, and director for policy and research.

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