Squeaky wheels get the grease

July 23, 2004

With funding in short supply, social work must speak up for itself or it will go without. Terry Philpot reports.

Despite the headlines about child abuse cases and the urgent calls for research into what can be done to stop them occurring, there are only about 20 to 30 social work research units at British universities and only one, at Stirling University, has more than 20 staff. Very often what passes for a social work research unit is no more than a plaque on the door of a small office that houses the proverbial one person and a dog. This compares unfavourably with education, nursing and medicine.

Part of the problem is cash and a perception that funding bodies such as the Economic and Social Research Council do not recognise the work done by social work units, a charge the ESRC denies.

The Social Care Institute for Excellence, set up by the Government to test evidence and promote and disseminate good practice, has recently been trying to prise open the ESRC's coffers more widely to get a larger share of its Pounds 80 million a year spend.

The ESRC says it considers social work bids competitively alongside other bids, and those that are good enough get the money. But Ian Shaw, professor of social work at York University, who took part in a study of the relationship between the ESRC and social work for the SCIE, says both the ESRC and social work researchers could do more to promote social work research.

The study's analysis of 2,538 bids listed by the ESRC shows that 0.6 per cent appeared to include a direct link to social work, most commonly services for children and families, 1.3 per cent had an obvious welfare link, and 0.9 per cent a possible social work link. The researchers say the small numbers involved make it difficult to compare the outcome of bids from social work with others, but success rates seem comparable with those of the whole sample. Shaw, however, believes it could be argued that the ESRC system discriminates against social work.

"I think that the data are not strong enough to make very firm assertions either way about the fate of social work bids, though as far as it goes it seems to suggest that the issue is more one of volume than one of discrimination. But using the example of institutional racism, it's quite possible that the system as such discriminates by discouraging social work applications because, for instance, ESRC programme specifications don't address social work themes; social work folk aren't on ESRC boards and so on."

He says that social work needs greater representation on ESRC committees.

This would not only increase the ESRC's understanding of social work but would also encourage more social work bids.

He also believes that social work researchers need to promote the development of programmes where there might be a particular social work interest, such as the just-completed three-year Growing Older Programme.

And he argues that researchers should be pushing the ESRC to see that the social work component in programmes is made explicit, as is the case with disciplines such as sociology or psychology.

The ESRC admits that its response to social work has tended to be reactive, but argues that social work research may itself be to blame because research units are "relatively small". According to Jeremy Neathey, the council's associate director of research and until recently its social work link person, the ESRC is tackling this by allocating extra PhD studentships to social work. It also intends to co-fund, with the SCIE, a health of the discipline review for social work collaboration to look at ways of strengthening the academic base of the discipline.

"I wouldn't question the overall quality of applications we receive in the social work area," he says, "although the numbers are small because of the relatively limited institutional base."

Joan Orme, professor of social work at Glasgow University and a member of the ESRC's training board, adds: "Once you are involved with the ESRC, you see that it is not a monolith and neither is there a conspiracy to keep social work out. It is more a matter of dialogue and, as Australians say, 'squeaky wheels' - they are the ones that get the grease."

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