Leader: Free researchers from hand that feeds them

November 23, 2001

The Economic and Social Research Council held its annual meeting last week under the title Mind the Gap: The Role of Social-Science Research in Policy-making. The meeting, while stuffed with interesting presentations, was thinly attended and somewhat muted. There was, for example, no mention of reform of the House of Lords under the heading "The democratic deficit", despite the presence of the former leader of the Lords, Baroness Jay, in the chair. One speaker, with deliberate irony, noted: "Of course I agree with the previous speaker: he runs a major grant-giving charity in the area in which I work." Malcolm Wicks, minister for work, had already warned: "We need academics to be more willing than many still are to give information and advice to the democracy that pays the wages."

Research is, as a matter of policy, being geared to immediate needs. Only one-third of the ESRC's money goes in responsive-mode grants. The rest goes to big thematic programmes. These are excellent in themselves but reinforce the patronage of established researchers at the expense of young people with divergent ideas, as Frank Furedi points out. No one was tactless enough to ask if this patronage may be connected to the "greying" of the social-science research community. Nor was anyone as forthright as Brendan Simms about the dangers of being too eager to please. Biting the hand that feeds is seen as too risky.

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