Global concerns high on Turner's agenda

May 18, 2007

Globalisation, climate change, demographic change, and religion and identity are among the future research priorities in social science, it emerged this week.

Lord Turner, who succeeded Frances Cairncross as chair of the Economic and Social Research Council last month, said that his vision for the ESRC includes tackling "what society believes are the big issues that need to be addressed".

He said that good social science is crucially important for government policy, business and the way society is run.

"The issue of globalisation, and the world economy and Britain's place within that, is one important dimension that it would be very odd if we were not doing something about," he said. He added: "After Nick Stern's great report on the economic consequences of climate change there's a whole series of issue that should be taken forward in both a theoretical and a practical fashion."

Lord Turner went on to say that debates about immigration, multiculturalism and integrationism need to be "rooted in an understanding of what we mean by identity and values, and to what extent strong religious beliefs may be rooted in sociological and economic factors".

Also important, he said, are the challenges of the UK's ageing population and issues surrounding fertility, the family and childcare.

Lord Turner is a former director-general of the Confederation of British Industry; and has chaired both the UK Low Pay Commission and the UK Pensions Commission. He has seen first hand how good social science research can have a direct impact on public policy.

"I am well aware that what the ESRC does - which is fund good research, fund good underlying data sources and fund, through our training and studentships, the future generation of good social science researchers - are things fundamental to good evidence-based policy," he said.

But while it is necessary to have guided research, Lord Turner said it is vital that there continues to be funding for high-quality research that does not fit in with "pre-set agendas".

"I'm a strong believer that we shouldn't be totally utilitarian in relation to academic research. Knowledge is of value for its own sake as well," he said.

"If somebody comes to us with an idea from completely left field that didn't fit any preset agendas but that is high-quality academic research we should be able to fund it because that's part of creating an intellectually lively environment."

Lord Turner studied economics and history at Cambridge before launching a high-flying business career that has seen him work for BP, the Chase Manhattan Bank and management consultants McKinsey&Co. He was vice-chair of Merrill Lynch until last year and is a non-executive director of Standard Chartered Bank, Siemens Holdings, United Business Media and Paternoster.

He is also a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and City University's Cass Business School. "I've always liked to have a toehold in academia," he said.

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