The mistress of all she surveys

May 16, 1997

Susan McRae, director of the Population and Household Change Programme, talks to Alison Utley about directing Britain's key social research which will inform policy

Susan McRae displays a thoroughly polished media performance which is second nature now. She is one of those researchers whose work is, she admits, sexy. The media cannot resist hyping stories on the death of the family, rising divorce rates and declining family values - all bread and butter to Professor McRae whose expertise is always in demand. She is director of the Population and Household Change Programme (PHCP), one of the biggest and most expensive of social science research projects.

It is a reflection of the importance the Economic and Social Research Council invests in its programme directors that Professor McRae has been rigorously media trained. She has even been to a masterclass on television appearances and will never wear long earrings or plunging necklines on screen - all distracting no-nos apparently.

Established in 1994, the PHCP will examine the links between household living arrangements and broader demographic change in the United Kingdom through 17 connected projects (see panel, right). Some are complete, their results ready to be scrutinised (see page 7). Others are still at a much earlier stage. The focus will be on both the causes and consequences of major changes in the West. Marriage rates have fallen dramatically. Divorce and cohabitation are on the up, women are having fewer children, later in life, and there has been a marked rise in child bearing outside marriage at almost all ages.

The research council believes that these changes have major significance for economic and social behaviour and policy that goes far beyond individual households. Housing demand and income support are affected with longer-term consequences for employment and support for the elderly. It falls to Professor McRae to steer the projects and pull everything together at the end. Her own research has focused on the employment experiences of new mothers, cohabiting mothers and cross-class families, all of which must be useful background. ESRC research programmes are a relatively new departure.

At the beginning, she recalls, no one really knew what to expect. Professor McRae, then a senior fellow and head of the Employment and Society Group at the Policy Studies Institute, was appointed as coordinator of the project rather than director but as the research council's own function has shrunk, the project management side of its research has been hived off. As a result Professor McRae and all the other programme heads are now directors, a not insignificant shift. "The aim is to create something which is greater than the sum of its parts and I guess that's my role,'' she says.

She has no power to command the researchers but as she says, you rarely get good research through coercion. Persuasion is so much more effective. Otherwise the job consists of disseminating the research results. The communications strategy is central to the programme and the research council has not stinted on providing Professor McRae with a generous budget with which to travel and generally get the data out to the people who need it through an exhausting round of seminars, conferences, presentations, newsletters and media interviews, all of which professor McRae relishes.

She in Whitehall last week presenting to senior civil servants. "It's so much more effective if we go to them.'' A book is also being edited for Oxford University Press. The only down side, she realises, is that she is not doing the research itself. However this is only half of Professor McRae's existence. The other half of her time she spends being head of school at Oxford Brookes University although when the ESRC first appointed her programme director she was at the Policy Studies Institute in London. When she moved to Oxford, the programme went with her.

The directorship could easily be a full-time job and Professor McRae is taking a well earned sabbatical later this year. Having absorbed all the research, she will try to work out what it all means.

THE POPULATION AND HOUSEHOLD CHANGE PROGRAMME

The total Economic and Social Research Council Grant is Pounds 2.4 million shared between the following: * Britain's place in Europe's population, Pounds 76,800, Oxford University, completing June 97

* Changes in household structures, household transitions and geographical mobility, Pounds 72,000, Queen Mary and Westfield College, complete

* Demography of partnership, Pounds 280,000, London School of Economics, completing March 1999

* Explaining the growth of lone parenthood in Britain, Pounds 60,350, Policy Studies Institute, complete

* Structure and meaning of non-heterosexual relationships, Pounds 111,000 South Bank University, complete

* Family change, Pounds 61,800, Cambridge University, complete

* Fathers apart, Pounds 102,000, York University, complete

* Formal models of households, families and kinship in contemporary Britain Pounds 93,900, LSE

* The impact of family change on older people Pounds 105,400, Open University, complete

* Intergenerational relationships and household change Pounds 106,000, University of London, complete

* Kinship networks and friendship 1986-1995 Pounds 71,500, Family Policy Studies Centre, complete

* Living arrangements and social change of Caribbeans in Britain, Pounds 150,000, Cheltenham andGloucester College of Higher Education, completing December 97

* Migration, kinship and household change Pounds 163,000, Lancaster University, complete

* National survey of sexual attitudes: Relevance to family formation, Pounds 97,000, London School of Hygiene, complete

* Parity progression in Britain: Family formation stage by stage Pounds 103,700, Southampton University

* Patterns of kinship in the urban environment: the experiences and responses of older people

* Pounds 165,000, Keele University, completing October 97

* Teenage mothers Pounds 60,000 Policy Studies Institute, complete

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