Diamond sets sights on a sparkling future

September 10, 2004

The ESRC's new head is determined to revitalise social science with fresh blood. Anna Fazackerley reports on his plans for a £1m pot to give researchers a helping hand up the career ladder.

Young social scientists may soon have access to ringfenced research funding, as part of the drive by the new chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council to bring a fresh generation of academics into the field.

Ian Diamond took over the reins at the ESRC in January - a role he describes as "the best job in UK social science". He has first-hand experience of the struggle to climb the academic career ladder. He started out with a temporary lectureship at Herriot-Watt University and worked his way up to deputy vice-chancellor of Southampton University.

Now Professor Diamond is determined to help young academics get their first break in research. "I feel incredibly strongly that we need to be developing the next generation," he told The Times Higher .

This is not just a personal whim. Many of the ESRC's key research areas are at risk of dying out without an injection of fresh academic blood.

Professor Diamond lists empirical law research, economics, social statistics and social work as potential problem areas dominated by an ageing cohort of researchers.

As well as considering ringfenced research funding for those starting out, Professor Diamond is keen to introduce training for new researchers, covering areas such as how to manage your first research assistant.

The training and development theme will extend to all parts of the research base, with £1 million set aside to help academics at all levels to advance their careers.

"One thing we will look at is how you manage a team," Professor Diamond says. "There is still a role for the lone scholar but social science is increasingly a large-scale activity rather than a cottage industry. We ought to be training researchers in management."

In common with other research council heads, Professor Diamond is keen to step up efforts to communicate the results of the research his council funds.

Professor Diamond is a quiet man who prefers to keep his family life in Bath private, but he becomes animated when discussing research ideas, leaning forward in his chair and talking at twice his usual speed.

He wants ESRC researchers to communicate this excitement to the general public. But he appreciates that not all scientists want to thrust themselves in front of the camera. "If there's brilliant work out there, I have no problem at all in us doing the writing and presenting if that is the best way," he says.

Next year, the ESRC will launch a new information centre as the hub for all this communication.

Every research project that the council funds will be archived online, with a team of science writers working with researchers to produce a 500-word plain-English summary of their work.

The centre, which is the first of its kind among the research councils, will be marketed as a fact-finding resource for undergraduates, academics, the Government, media and general public.

These ideas will require money, and one of Professor Diamond's key challenges will be supporting all the council's priority areas from an already stretched funding pot.

How much the council has to spend on new science in the coming years depends on how it fares when the Office of Science and Technology divides this year's spending review allocation this autumn.

Professor Diamond says he will be campaigning hard for an increase in responsive mode funding - the money that supports scientists' basic research ideas.

"Turning down excellent applications is a sad fact of life," he said. "But we need more money for responsive mode. It has to be one of our main priorities."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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