A review of the social sciences discovers that a funding imbalance is the main cause of problems besetting research and recruitment. Becky McCall reports
A review of the social sciences has found a wide range of issues that affect the field, but money - both the lack of it overall and the way it is distributed within the disciplines - emerges as a major problem in its own right.
The report, Demographic Review of the Social Sciences , was written by Mark Easterby-Smith, a member of the Economic and Social Research Council training board and president of the British Academy of Management. He said that over the past decade or so he had noticed a widening chasm between the natural sciences and the social sciences in terms of funding.
Figures for 2006-07 show that the ESRC has a budget worth about £142 million, whereas the medical and natural science research councils each receive more than £500 million.
"Funding is like jam - in the natural sciences it is spread more thickly than in the social sciences, attracting much needed young researchers," Professor Easterby-Smith said.
"Unfortunately, the ESRC - which covers the largest area of disciplines relative to the other research councils - receives one of the smallest budgets but has far more researchers.
"I think there are two major issues here to do with the funding. First, the balance between the pure and the social sciences and, second, the internal distribution of funds within the social sciences themselves.
"The ESRC needs to decide how to allocate research money. If it is by the quality of proposal, then we need to spread best practice workshops so that all disciplines have an equal chance. We already run workshops in this area, but we need more."
Jeremy Neathey, head of postgraduate training at the ESRC, who has been central to the compilation of the review, believes that there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to the problems facing the social sciences.
"There's a variable picture in terms of demographics, and the ESRC needs to develop training strategies that are specifically targeted to different disciplines," he said. "Until now, we have adopted a standard approach, so a targeted approach is a big change in policy for us."
The review found that employment packages and working conditions were a source of anxiety to social scientists.
Mr Neathey said: "We found that older researchers are retiring and not being replaced and that many younger ones are on short-term contracts so there is a lack of job stability. This doesn't bode well for sustainability of the social sciences generally."
In response to the report, Robert Dingwall, director of the Institute for the Study of Genetics, Biorisks and Society at Nottingham University, said that more rapid change was required to boost research careers in social science.
"I think a lot of research careers have an amateur ethos that fit around teaching rather than having an identity of their own," he said.
Young researchers find themselves restricted by a lack of prospects and a lack of appreciation for their research expertise, he said.
"Structures currently in place make it difficult to maintain expertise in the research field. This is compounded by the research assessment exercise format and the government-led need for new interdisciplinary collaborations."
Demographic Review of the Social Sciences is due to be published early next month.
Strong dialogue between research and practice
Chris Taylor, a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, set out with the intention of becoming a schoolteacher.
But having completed a PhD in education policy, he realised that he could contribute more to education through research rather than through hands-on classroom activity.
"When teachers come on to postgraduate certificate in education courses to train students, they are often asked to teach immediately without any research experience and have only one year to turn out fully qualified teachers," he said.
"In medicine, people in effect sit in the classroom for six years before they practice. Teacher trainers on PGCE courses are required to be registered practitioners, but research experience isn't considered. I've been a researcher for ten years, and I feel that my knowledge is undervalued in that context."
Dr Taylor said that classroom-based experience alone was insufficient to improve teaching practice and that research was absolutely crucial. He said he was fortunate to be at Cardiff, which is one of only two education departments in the UK with a 5* research rating. He believed this was due largely to the strength of dialogue between research and practice.
"Here in Cardiff, schools try out new initiatives with the local authority based on research findings," he said. "But because of the pressures of the classroom environment, we need to find new ways of helping to implement findings that are sustainable in practice."
Contract clouds future outlook
Many social science subjects struggle to retain academics, and much of the problem may lie in the high number of staff on fixed-term contracts.
While such contracts may be falling in number in the natural and physical sciences, they are on the increase in the social sciences.
This might reflect the changing nature of social science research towards project-based activity, but fixed-term contracts naturally exacerbate anxieties over job security.
Ian Diamond, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, said: "Universities give contracts not the ESRC. But social science research has changed significantly in the past ten years with a move towards teamwork, away from the lone scholar.
"As with all research councils, the ESRC is in discussion with institutions to see how we might improve career opportunities. Short-term contracts are an issue for the social sciences and others such as arts and humanities."
Areas such as economics also suffer the effects of an external market, which can lead to a drift out of academe. John Sutton, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, said: "We lose too many graduates and PhDs to lucrative jobs in the City."
The recruitment of international staff is increasing in several of the social sciences, but the trend is most marked in economics. In 2003-04, 45 per cent of permanent staff under 35 were UK nationals, a further 32 per cent were EU nationals. In addition, 38 per cent of new permanent appointments in economics did their highest degrees in the US.
Professor Sutton said the situation echoed that in the US a decade ago when a shortage of candidates led to an influx from overseas. "We'd do the same, if salaries were good enough to attract high-calibre foreign researchers," he said.
Education and business studies tend to draw a high proportion of staff from outside academe. While this can can be positive in terms of their experience, the drawback is that such recruits tend to have little or no training in research.
Professor Diamond said: "Management and education are a particular issue because academic staff have not followed a conventional career path."
Figures look more attractive in world of industry and commerce
There are three vacancies for social statisticians at Lancaster University, and yet there are no applicants.
Brian Francis, professor of social statistics at Lancaster, said this was not unusual and that the situation was the same in departments across the country.
Professor Francis, who has been at Lancaster for 25 years, believes that the lure of industry and commerce is all too attractive to those social sciences students with a leaning towards figures.
"I have been in social sciences for 15 years after migrating into the field after a period of time as a medical statistician," he said. "But today, students do not feel motivated to continue in the field. They see academics like me snowed under with workload due to the lack of staff.
"The supply of social statisticians is very small, and few are tempted into the field.
"We need to attract more students into undergraduate degrees and beyond."
Quantitative methods research is more than just bean counting. Professor Francis stressed that the field of social statistics was inextricably linked to the qualitative aspects of social science.
"I was particularly attracted because of my interest in criminology and the way that qualitative methods enable me to engage with the subject matter of social science as well as the figures."
It's hard to count on statisticians
A review of the social sciences discovers that a funding imbalance is the main cause of problems besetting research and recruitment. Becky McCall reports
Even a social scientist would admit that number-crunching is one of the least attractive parts of the job, but it is without a doubt one of the most essential skills any academic in the field needs.
Government and research councils have been concerned about the decline in popularity of quantitative skills for more than a decade.
With few lecturers trained in applying quantitative methods, courses in these areas are under-resourced and receive little promotion. As a result, students find statistics-laden social science courses unattractive. This has led to course closures, which exacerbate the shortage of academics and fuel a vicious circle of decline.
David Mills, lead author of the Economic and Social Research Council report, said that quantitative skills training was key to the future of social science research.
Dr Mills, of Birmingham University, said: "Social statistics as a field is disappearing. It's an unattractive area for students, so there is nobody to teach later on. How can we fund staff without students?"
Many social science statistics departments are forced to recruit overseas, where students are able to complete masters in quantitative methods.
Bob Gilchrist, professor of statistics at London Metropolitan University, puts the blame on the lack of funding for masters. "We can't recruit anymore, anywhere, at professorial or at lecturer level. We have a good Anglo-Saxon build-up of research, we have been at the forefront of research, but we risk losing our premier position."
"If we can recruit, they often come from the US: these students often use the system to jump the US ladder and don't stay long."
He would like to see more funding to support masters courses aimed at training young people rather than researchers with some experience. "Too much research council money is given to the grey-haired researchers to satisfy research assessment exercise requirements, rather than to support the 22-year-olds," he said.
Denise Osborn, professor of economics at Manchester University, said: "Students often want to do qualitative work, but they are not interested in getting to grips with statistics. "It goes back to problems at school level, which have led to a situation where many students who enter the social sciences have not done mathematics beyond GCSE."
Another big problem is that social science graduates who have training in statistics are often in demand in the private sector.
"This specialist field is particularly vulnerable because of the demand for these skills in financial services and pharmaceutical industries," Dr Mills said.
Age-old problem bedevils some fields more than others
The Economic and Social Research Council's demographic review of the social sciences has revealed a complex picture of how different disciplines are affected by having an ageing academic workforce.
The report says that rather than all social sciences facing a generalised age crisis, some disciplines have more of a potential problem.
The fields of education, management and business studies, social work and social policy appear to have ageing demographic profiles.
More than half of staff in education, 47 per cent in social work, 42 per cent in social policy and 41 per cent in management and business are aged 50 or over.
The report points out that these fields tend to expect their lecturing staff to have acquired practice-based experience before developing a research profile, making permanent appointees relatively older than their peers in more research-focused subjects.
Disciplines such as sociology and linguistics have staff age profiles that are more likely to be the cohort effect of "bulges" in appointments in the 1960s and 1970s working their way through the system. They may also partly be the result of a subsequent drop in student and staff recruitment in these disciplines.
The ageing crisis in social sciences is probably affecting education more than any other discipline.
According to John Furlong, director of education at Oxford University, there are two factors at work. The first is that a drive in the early 1980s to recruit experienced academics into education has created a situation in which a large number of education staff are now approaching retirement.
The second is that an emphasis from the mid-1980s on recruiting staff from the schools sector has led to difficulties in providing them with research training and experience.
He said: "Experienced academics approaching retirement age were not being replaced throughout the 1990s. Instead, you had people coming in from schools who then had to do their research training on the job while carrying out their lecturing duties.
"It's a real challenge to every university education department to get those people up to speed before the experienced academics leave."
Ian Shaw, professor of social work at York University, said expansion in his discipline has put many departments under pressure.
He said: "It is rare to find a social work lecturer under the age of 40.
"Younger people entering the discipline might be bright, but they have not had the opportunity to develop the kind of practice profile required."
National regulatory bodies in the field, such as the General Social Care Council, have not helped by failing to include training at doctoral level in their training resources, he added.
"This means that routes into academic careers that are open in other disciplines are far more difficult to find in social work," he said.
'I don't have many colleagues of my own age here anymore'
Barry Barnes, professor of sociology at Exeter University, has recently experienced some of the unwelcome effects of an ageing staff profile in the social sciences.
"I am afraid I sometimes feel quite lonely these days.
"I am coming up to 63, and I don't have many colleagues of my own age here anymore, as most of them have retired," he said.
More than a fifth of sociology staff are over the age of 55, and more than four out of ten are aged 50 or over - making its academic workforce one of the oldest in the UK.
Social policy, an area Professor Barnes is also involved in, has a similar staff age profile. "The demographic problem has not stopped universities from encouraging people in the last decades of their careers to go early,"
Professor Barnes explained. "That has left a hole in terms of experienced and able people."
The discipline is still suffering from the impact of attacks on its credibility from the Thatcher Government in the 1980s, which made it more difficult to attract bright young academics into the field, he argues.
"Ideally what you need is a good balance of staff of different ages and levels of experience - but that has become very difficult to achieve," Professor Barnes added.