Research intelligence - Beyond the shadows

With priorities in mind, new ESRC chief looks past the fiscal gloom towards opportunity. Paul Jump reports

October 14, 2010

With the Comprehensive Spending Review casting a dark shadow over the research funding landscape, Paul Boyle admits that now is a "challenging" time to become chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council.

The first task for Professor Boyle, who took a four-year leave of absence from his post as head of the School of Geography and Geosciences at the University of St Andrews to assume his new role, has been a damage-limitation exercise.

The role of the ESRC, as Britain's main funder of social science research, includes serving as a champion for its subjects, he said.

Hence, in addition to encouraging ministers and civil servants to see research spending as a good investment overall, he has been busy "arguing strongly to make sure the budget for social science isn't cut too heavily".

These representations will continue after the delivery of the CSR on 20 October and until the final carve-up of the research budget is announced, probably early next year.

Professor Boyle believes that his message about the importance of social science in addressing many major issues, from the recession to climate change, is being heard. Not least, he said, because many people in government come from a social science background.

But he is under no illusions that the ESRC will escape cuts entirely, and admitted that, internally, the council is engaged in "hard thinking" about the areas of activity that should be prioritised, a process he described as "part of the excitement of the job".

Before any final decisions are taken, he said, the ESRC will consult its council and various committees, as well as senior university figures.

He intends to act in concert with other social science funders such as the British Academy to make sure that "a breadth of funding opportunities" remains available.

At St Andrews, Professor Boyle has been particularly proud of his school's involvement in setting up the Scottish Longitudinal Study, a dataset linking various demographic, socio-economic and health data about a large sample group of Scots.

The ESRC is the only UK funder of longitudinal surveys, and even though they are one of the council's more expensive commitments, Professor Boyle is particularly keen to protect finance for them.

"Projects such as our birth cohort studies are recognised as globally leading and, since they follow people through their lives, they appreciate in value and allow researchers to answer more and more questions.

"This is different from some other large resources that depreciate over time," he said.

Professor Boyle's own research has straddled demography and epidemiology, and he is keen that money for such interdisciplinary research should be preserved because it is "undoubtedly the approach to answer some of the really tricky problems".

Staying in focus

He thinks the seven priority areas identified in the ESRC's five-year strategic plan will have to be overlaid with three even more urgent themes.

These will be reviewed annually to help the council manage its way through the cuts and respond quickly to the emergence of major new research questions, such as how to avoid another banking crisis.

The productivity of the ESRC's "relatively small" staff of between 130 and 150 people is impressive, Professor Boyle said, but he accepts that with government departments expected to be asked to deliver efficiency savings of 33 per cent, some job losses - hopefully through natural wastage - may be unavoidable.

As indicated recently by Phil Sooben, the council's director of policy and administration, this will require the ESRC to introduce some means of limiting the number of grant applications it has to process. The council is looking at systems adopted by the other research councils and by social science funders around the world.

Professor Boyle also hopes to work with universities to reduce the pressure on researchers to submit applications before they are necessarily ready to do so.

He said this would be a "win-win" situation because it would also push up success rates from a current level of less than 20 per cent.

Having been in that situation himself, he said, he is aware of researchers' frustration when their applications receive glowing reviews but still are not funded.

However, he argued that the ESRC's peer-review system is robust enough to make substantive distinctions even among high-quality applications. He is also happy with the research councils' approach to the impact agenda, although he admitted that there is a group of academics who "aren't necessarily resistant but who need some help to have a greater impact".

He would like impact training to be delivered by the ESRC's doctoral training centres and units: approved consortia of university departments on which ESRC studentships will be concentrated.

"We have got to make sure that what we support is balanced between work with direct economic impact and work with social, cultural and intellectual impact," Professor Boyle said.

"We can't predict the future, but we have the potential to influence it and we have to think about the impact agenda in those terms."

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