It's a tough job - but as he told them at the census, you can count on me

September 27, 2002

Fresh from overhauling the census, Ian Diamond is bringing his enthusiasm and rigour to the many tasks facing the ESRC. David Walker reports.

It is rare for social scientists to put themselves and their reputations in the public firing line. But next week, Ian Diamond, the newly appointed chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, will do just that.

Diamond, an expert on survey methods, was called by the Office for National Statistics six years ago to make the population census more accurate. There had been a big fuss about missing millions in 1991. More than £50 billion in grants to councils, GPs, the regions and so on rides on census figures. On Monday, the first fruits of Diamond's scheme for "imputing" the characteristics of the missing people will be available for scrutiny when the ONS announces the initial results of the 2001 census.

Diamond will be ready. As one of the UK's foremost social statisticians, with a formidable record of quantitative studies at home and abroad, his work is state of the art and backed by a huge exercise in peer review and consultation. The 48-year-old Diamond is a big man whose conversation is spattered with enthusiastic superlatives. He makes a strong contrast, physically and personally, with his predecessor, Gordon Marshall, who is leaving the ESRC to become vice-chancellor of Reading University.

Diamond comes to the ESRC with bright intellectual credentials and vast experience in the sort of practical research that governments like. From the basis of undergraduate study at the London School of Economics and a PhD at St Andrews University, he went on to build his department at the University of Southampton into an international centre for statistical work in social sciences.

His reputation as a team-builder and motivator will be put to the test by the bureaucratic constraints of ESRC headquarters in Swindon. The ESRC is a quango, and its chief executive has limits on his autonomy. He answers to a board made up of lay and professional people and, in the journalist Frances Cairncross, a chair with ideas of her own.

He will also have to deal with politicians, who may want answers to pressing questions that liberal-minded social researchers find embarrassing - such as why so few failed asylum seekers ever leave the UK. And not least he will have to respond to "society", the millions out there who do not understand standard deviation or random sampling and who often seem underwhelmed by and uncomprehending of what social scientists discover about their behaviour.

But Diamond is no novice. As Southampton's deputy vice-chancellor, he must have some experience of academic squabbling. And for two years, he has been a member of the ESRC council and, as chair of its resources board, a top-rank decision-maker.

But could his familiarity with the ESRC act as a brake on the reforms some believe are necessary? If the council needs a good shaking, will Diamond be able to free himself from policies and practices for which he already carries some responsibility?

No minister, not even Lord Sainsbury, the politician responsible for the council, could give an informed run-down on the national strategy for social research, and few academics will give their views on the ESRC on the record.

There are, however, clearly people who believe that the council lacks strategic direction. Whitehall research directors complain that it is too reactive. Some academics complain privately that too much work is funded on the basis of horse-trading rather than on scientific merit. Some of new Labour's closest advisers, including Geoff Mulgan of the Forward Strategy Unit, bemoan the fact that it only rarely gives them a sense of how the world is turning. The ESRC has done relatively well out of spending rounds but, say some, it should have done a lot better given new Labour's enthusiasm for social policy.

Diamond certainly seems ambitious. "I want the ESRC to do world-class research and to build the capacity to do it across all the disciplines. And that's research for a purpose: to answer the big questions facing the nation, facing society," he says. Such a statement could be read as a criticism of the status quo, and Diamond agrees that his yen for internationally recognised excellence may mean abandoning the policy of putting time limits on funding, and saying "no" more often to less-than-stellar performers. But he is also keen to encourage those newer to the field: "I want to encourage researchers to acquire new skills, improve their methodological competence," he says, adding that he wants to "reach out to social researchers who do not make the ESRC their first port of call when they are seeking support".

He is certainly going to be busy. He also wants to inform politicians and civil servants about the ESRC's agenda - and then he has to win over the social scientists, some of whom suspect that his appointment means even less support for "softer" approaches to understanding society.

Diamond denies this, proclaiming himself a methodological pluralist. He comes across as fresh, conveying an infectious sense of a puzzling, complex world out there just begging to be analysed, investigated and explained. But his is an odd job, demanding a combination of management skills, intellectual depth and showmanship. And there is no shortage of challenges. The ESRC, for example, needs to get out from under the crushing weight of the Office of Science and Technology without ending up a marginal entity under, say, the Department for Education and Skills. Previous incumbents have not had an easy ride. One, the planner Sir Peter Hall, lasted only a few days.

Faced with all this - and with noisy backbench MPs and cruel tabloid editors all too eager to seize on social research and damn its cost and relevance - the easy option would be to focus on issues such as improving the training of social scientists, especially their skills in quantitative research.

But perhaps Diamond's biggest challenge is that implicitly set at the British Association meeting earlier this month by Sir Howard Newby, whose tenure as chief executive still dominates the ESRC agenda. He bemoaned the lack of faith in the idea of social progress and the public distrust of rational inquiry. Who better than the leader of the ESRC to explain to society just how vital rational inquiry is to progress?

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