There's more than one way to satisfy curiosity

July 28, 2006

United by a burning passion for their subjects, today's young academics in the social sciences are itching to pursue their ideas out in the real world, Anthea Lipsett reports

Higher hopes

Today's up-and-coming social scientists are a far cry from the esoteric bunch they are often imagined to be.

Rather than being cooped up in ivory towers, they are bright and interested men and women bent on discovering answers to the questions that keep them awake at night.

They are adept at taking society's ills and coming up with solutions, media savvy and quick to share their findings, keen both to shape their discipline and change the world.

The Times Higher has spoken to key research funders, learned societies and institutions to track down the rising academic stars in different subjects.

In this, the second in a fortnightly series on the leading lights in academia, we reveal who to look out for in the social sciences.

'You can wake up with an idea and go into work to research it without having a boss or client breathing down the phone'
Jon Van Reenen

Britain is a nation of David Brents, the toe-curlingly bad manager in BBC comedy The Office, according to research conducted by John Van Reenen.

"I was looking at whether bad management is one of the reasons why the UK's productivity falls behind other countries," he says. "This hadn't been confirmed with rigorous data, so I designed a way to get an empirical handle on good and bad management practices."

His study of 730 companies in the UK, US, France and Germany found that the caricature of the UK being badly managed is accurate. "Some companies are better than anywhere else in the world, but on average we're pretty bad," he says.

"The interesting thing was the variation. It's down to competition. In the US, badly managed companies are driven out and the best managed prosper.

That's one of the great things about research, - you find out things you weren't expecting at the start."

Professor Van Reenen's main research area is productivity. "The 2004 study focused mainly on manufacturing, to allow for easy international comparison and because it is a problem area for the UK," he explains.

"We're also looking at public services and retail, so it's gradually including other sectors. A related paper looks at information technology and productivity.

"It seems that American companies in Britain get more out of their technology than other non-US multinationals. When some plants in the UK get taken over by an American company, they tend to increase productivity much more than Japanese or German firms. It's not the IT, it's the way it's being used."

Professor Van Reenen, the 40-year-old director of the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance, has a palpable enthusiasm for research. "The feeling you get when you push the frontiers forward, even if only a small amount, is extraordinarily exciting," he says.

"All the time you get that buzz. Bouncing ideas off people is incredibly stimulating."

Professor Van Reenen's academic father "strongly advised" him against academic life, but his intellectual itch needed scratching and his interest in doing research grew as he went along.

Instead of going into business, he did consultancy, advised former Health Secretary Alan Milburn for a year and set up a spin-off company.

"That's one of the good things about being an academic. You have a lot of opportunities to do different things. You don't have to do the same thing forever," he says.

"Academia offers an incredible amount of freedom to satisfy intellectual curiosity. There's no other occupation I know of that gives the same level of discretion, where you can get up in the morning with an idea and go into work to research it without having a boss or client breathing down the phone," Professor Van Reenen says.

But climbing the academic ladder takes its toll. "If I'm honest, I work every minute of the day," he says. "If you want to do things, you have to put in a lot of hours. That's the case with every occupation, unless you're an absolute genius. But if you enjoy doing it, it's like being paid to do what you would be doing anyway. Well, most of the time."

'Not many people get the time and space to reflect in detail. We have the flexibility and the ability to take a step back'
Jon Glasby

For someone who does not see himself as an academic, Jon Glasby has produced an impressive nine books and numerous research papers since finishing his PhD in 2001.

"I've always enjoyed writing, and it comes easily to me. The trick is to explain complicated concepts in a way that people can understand," he says.

The former National Health Service social worker, now senior lecturer at Birmingham University's Health Services Management Centre, plays down his prolific work rate and speedy rise up the academic ranks.

"I was always too practical for academia and too academic for practice," he says. "HSMC is both academic and involved in a broad range of policy advice and practice. It's an incredibly privileged position to be in.

"Not many people get the time and space to reflect in detail on social problems. We have the flexibility and the ability to take a step back from the day-to-day pressures of running a health service to make links and learn lessons. That's really satisfying."

Just 30, Dr Glasby's success is all the more impressive for the work-life balance he insists on. "I have a two-year-old daughter and a baby on the way. I work nine to five and never take work home or check e-mails in the evening. I also do a childcare day one day a week," he says.

Dr Glasby is this year's joint winner of the Social Policy Association's best newcomer award and will be promoted to reader in health and social care in October. He created and leads Birmingham's partnerships programme, which gives consultancy advice, with the research evidence to back it up, to the NHS and social services.

It is this blend of consultancy, research, and developing practice and policy that Dr Glasby appreciates most. "My job gives me the chance to indulge my personal and professional interests and the capacity to make a real difference in the world," he says.

'You feel part of a global community of gender and politics scholars, a community of colleagues you share ideas with'
Sarah Childs

Sarah Childs, senior lecturer in sex, gender and politics at Bristol University, was behind a recent high-profile push to get the main political parties to use all-female candidate shortlists to increase the number of women in Parliament.

Since completing her PhD part time while working as a lecturer at Kingston University, Dr Childs's research has focused on the impact of women's political representation since 1997, especially the Labour Party's record number of women MPs.

Now she is looking at women's participation in politics at mass and elite levels and whether the presence of women in politics means that women's concerns are better represented.

"It's very timely," she says. "With the changes under David Cameron, there is a lot of drive in the Tory Party to reform. I'm looking at how they support women and how to get more women in Parliament.

"The research points to demand-side factors and whether political parties have high enough demand for women candidates in this country."

Like many young academics, at 36 Dr Childs appreciates the job's ability to offer space to contemplate the questions she finds interesting.

"I don't feel as if I've finished finding out what I want to know," she says.

But it is being part of a wider community of academics in the same field that gives her the greatest buzz. "You get amazing insights from other people's work from around the world, so you don't ever feel like it's parochial," she says.

"You feel you are part of a global community of gender and politics scholars, a community of colleagues and friends you share ideas with. It makes you think in different ways.

"When co-authored work works well, it's fantastic. It counters some of the loneliness of being stuck in front of a computer."

Contrary to the common depiction of academic life as fiercely competitive, Dr Childs finds her peers nothing but supportive.

"There's nobody in the women in politics group in the UK who I would feel in competition with. We're all trying to share and do the best research we can."

'There's still a lot of autonomy in academic life but, if anything, we have to be careful about self-exploitation'
Fiona Devine

Class-conscious Britain is a boon to Fiona Devine, a leading expert in social inequality, stratification and mobility at Manchester University.

Her latest book, Class Practices: How Parents Help Their Children Get Good Jobs , sets out theories of why class inequalities are reproduced across time and space, with the middle class transferring resources from one generation to the next.

She compared the UK with the US, which allowed her to live and work in Boston in the late 1990s - a "great experience", she says. "Social network analysis is really big in the States and I'm toying with that idea."

Professor Devine's research chimes with the public preoccupation with social class and inequality. "It's quite a hot topic at the moment," she says. "There's a lot of concern with the introduction of tuition fees and the Education Bill."

Now she wants to replicate that work with working-class families. "We tend to know a lot about people who go through the education system, but not about those who carve out other lives for themselves," she says.

"There's so much we don't know about work-life mobility and how people get into the jobs they do. Education is just one small part of that."

Professor Devine, who is 44, always wanted to be an academic because she really enjoyed her subject and still does. "I've just got back from a conference in Australia that was really intellectually stimulating. The world is always changing, so it's not easy to get bored with the subject."

She puts her success down to conscientiousness and staying rounded, a trait she is trying to pass on to younger colleagues as head of Manchester's sociology department.

"I try to make sure my colleagues are well and not working too hard.

There's still a lot of autonomy in academic life but, if anything, we have to be careful about self-exploitation."

The key is finding the balance, she says. "In winter, I'm happy to spend wet Manchester Sunday afternoons catching up with work, but you wouldn't catch me doing that in the summer.

"I work hard in the day job and I'm very happy to do that, but I have a normal life as well."

'Being somewhere with no running water or electricity, sleeping in a mud hut with five others - it keeps your head firmly on your shoulders'
Mukulika Banerjee

Few academics' research involves them having to sleep in a mud hut with no running water, but for Mukulika Banerjee it is part of what makes anthropology so exciting.

Research for the 39-year-old Bengali social anthropologist at University College London entails regular field trips, which can be logistically very taxing and, she says, impossible without "a sensible and supportive partner".

But Dr Banerjee "comes into her own" on research trips and aims to travel abroad at least once a year. She manages to juggle trips with the demands of her role as director of graduate studies, teaching and recent motherhood with apparent ease.

"That's pretty much the standard I set for myself - sometimes twice a year, in cases where I'm trying to get to a harvest or festival that I want to study," she says.

"It's been very good for my daughter and me. I've had four overseas conferences in the past two years and two briefer research trips than normal. It's hard to leave her, but they were so important I didn't want to miss them. That's what drives me and gives me credibility.

"You have to live and work in a way that's totally unfamiliar, and the dislocation is important. Being somewhere with no running water or electricity, learning to change out of a wet sari into a dry one (discreetly), constant conversations about your personal life, sleeping in a mud hut with five others - it all keeps your head firmly on your shoulders."

Dr Banerjee made her name with books about a non-violent anti-colonial political movement among the Pathans in Pakistan, and the social significance of the sari in Indian culture. Now she is looking at why people vote.

"There are very high rates of illiteracy in India, between 80 and 90 per cent. When elections come round every 18 months or so, turnouts are about 90 per cent. I'm trying to find out what it is about these people - whom the world would see as uneducated - that makes them go to the polls and vote," she explains.

"I had to go and observe the elections first hand and now the papers I'm writing this summer are much more informed. It gives a sense of immediacy and empathy," she says.

"People who are very unlike you have extremely sophisticated ideas because they are living this stuff. That's the perspective I value most. People who live it might not work with the same analytical tools, but they tell you the story in a way that no amount of reading or conferences will."

Interviewing former non-violent revolutionaries from the 1930s and 1940s, on the Pakistan border with Afghanistan, Dr Banerjee found life-changing, personally and professionally.

Her book on the Pathans was picked up by the world's media when the September 11, 2001, attacks took place and people wanted explanations for al-Qaeda.

"I work on research projects that are relevant to people's lives," she says. "That's what excites me.

"When you are an anthropologist, you have the luxury to take the problem that really interests you, research it and write about it," she says.

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