Pounds 1m says our policy's right

April 7, 2000

New Labour is keen to fund social science research, but there are fears that the money is being offered with strings attached. Phil Baty reports.

New Labour says it wants to take social science research seriously, ending a history of barely suppressed ridicule of the field by previous governments. To prove its commitment, the Department for Education and Employment has promised to fund six new university research centres, to the tune of about Pounds 1 million each. The DFEE has also promised to spend more than Pounds 15 million a year on its own research in the social sciences.

Addressing the Economic and Social Research Council earlier this year, education secretary David Blunkett called for a "revolution in relations between government and the social science research community". He wanted, he said, to break down the "seam of anti-intellectualism running through government".

It is a generous-sounding offer, and many academics are delighted that the social sciences community has at last been invited in from the cold. After the 1980s and early 1990s, when Margaret Thatcher declared that there is no such thing as society and ministers such as Rhodes Boyson and Keith Joseph attacked the giving of public money to what they saw as frivolous and leftwing research, new Labour's attitude seems like a breath of fresh air.

Nonetheless, some researchers are wary of this apparent olive branch. Blunkett wants to see "evidence-based policy" -government policies based on hard research. "We need social scientists to determine what works and why, and what types of policy initiatives are likely to be most effective," Blunkett has declared.

It sounds sensible, but some social scientists fear that they may come under pressure to provide research that supports existing government policies. They worry that, in order to win some of the new funding, academics - like National Health Service managers and school teachers before them - will have to jump through the government's hoops.

In his speech to the ESRC, Blunkett made it clear that the government preferred particular types of social science research. Programmes he singled out for praise included the ESRC's longitudinal birth cohort studies, which helped ministers devise their Sure Start policy - encouraging single parents to boost their children's skills before they start school. By contrast, too much research, Blunkett said, is poor, "inward looking, piecemeal" and "too supplier driven".

"For researchers to tell my constituents that the perpetrators of vandalism, neighbour nuisance, all-night parties I are really the victims rather than the perpetrators (of such crimes) does very little for the public credibility of social science," he added.

The names of the first two of the six research centres to be announced (see below) indicate the kind of research that will find favour under this regime.

The Centre for the Wider Benefits of Learning will be set up at the Institute of Education, in partnership with Birkbeck College, London, while the Centre for the Economics of Education will partner the London School of Economics, the IoE and the Institute of Fiscal Studies. The DFEE has funded a separate centre, already established at the IoE, called the Centre for Evidence-Informed Policy and Practice in Education.

Also in the pipeline for later this year is a DFEE-funded Centre for Information and Communication Technology and a centre linked to the new National Leadership College.

But even before the new centres get off the ground, the proposal that government works more closely with social scientists has provoked serious concern. "I think the last person to give advice on how to conduct research should be David Blunkett," says the LSE's Brendan O'Leary. "The role of an education minister is not to be prescriptive. Researchers work best when they are autonomous."

In his ESRC speech, Blunkett appeared not only to be trying to tell researchers what they should research, but also that they ought to try to avoid contradicting new Labour policies.

"I appeal to those who are undertaking research on immediate policy areas to provide a balanced approach and to ensure that a snapshot taken at the moment a policy has commenced, does not take them I into tabloid journalism, simply knocking spots off government policy," he said.

He reiterated the point, saying: "Researchers should make sure they are not seduced I into reducing complex and qualified conclusions to a set of simplistic and misleading messages that can do much harm."

Jeremy Richardson, director of the Centre for European Politics, Economics and Society at Oxford University, is worried that the ESRC already tries too hard to make its research government-friendly. He says that the fact that the council distributes Pounds 42 million to 28 specific programmes - ranging from examining the "interaction of people and computers" to the "future of work" - itself stifles blue-skies research.

"My view is that the programmes are generally a bad idea and are likely to stifle innovation, not encourage it," Richardson says. "If British social science is to be able to develop innovative ideas it is more likely to come via clever, even eccentric, academics having an idea that needs some funding, rather than getting us to chase money that has a particular programmatic theme. Quite often, these ideas will upset the government and the academic establishment in charge of funding agencies - and a jolly good thing too."

Another social scientist says: "The council does seem to curry favour (with new Labour) by designing programmes around government activity."

But few researchers will be turning down contracts. Indeed, the call is for more money to come the way of social scientists - but with no strings attached. "If Blunkett wants better and more relevant results, he should give us more funding," says O'Leary. "But he has to accept that people may bite the hand that feeds them."

FIVE SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH CENTRES ANNOUNCED SO FAR.

The Centre for the Wider Benefits of Learning Run by: The Institute of Education and Birkbeck College, London.

Director: John Bynner, Institute of Education, with Andy Green, (bE) and Tom Schuller (Birkbeck).

Centre will explore how education bene- fits people other than through earnings.

Bynner says: oOur goal will be to deter- mine the impact of learning on health, crime, citizenship and social cohesion.i Centre for the Economics of Education Run by: London school of Economics, in partnership with the oE and the Institute of iscal Studies.

Director: Steve Machin LSE.

Centre will investigate how to improve the cost-effectiveness of schools, the skills mosi n demand by employ- ers and the economic benefits to individuals of further education.

Centre for Evidence- Informed Policy and Prac- lice in Education Run by: The Institute of Education.

Directors: Anne Oakley and David Gough.

Centre will work with education researchers and practitioners to develop procedures to review research on education.

Also coming soon:

A Centre for Information and Cemmunication Technology will be set up later this year, and there are plans to fund a research centre attached to the Nation- al Leadership College.

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