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ESRC missed a trick in ignoring Big Society

Resource allocation to the Economic and Social Research Council is slightly down in cash terms, although factoring in inflation makes this a real terms cut. But in the light of budgetary allocations across government this is not a bad result and indicates the coalition government’s support for the science and knowledge base. Three issues struck me:

The public policy framework

It was amusing to note references to the importance of behavioural economics in the summary of the document, but then to find deep in the text acknowledgement that social scientists other than economists have been contributing to our understanding of behaviour for many years. Let us welcome economists into the behavioural fold. But it is a shame that more was not done in these plans to note what promises to be a very different approach to public policy, the move from a centralised state to more localism, and to a different kind of engagement with civil society. The term ‘Big Society’ appeared only in passing—disappointing given the Prime Minister’s focus which is likely to make it an important theme during the period of these delivery plans. Big Society is a challenging—even paradigm-shaking—idea for the policy community in Whitehall. It is a shame that ESRC staff and board members have not picked up the challenge.

Focus on lead organisations

Several decisions come together to strengthen the relative position of leading research universities compared with the rest of higher education. The abolition of the small grant system, the removal of ESRC-supported PhD studentships from universities outside a limited, favoured number, and a process being put in place to manage demand, with universities being encouraged to create barriers which will hold back applications from their staff—these are all signals of a shift towards a more corporatist approach.

To be fair, the Future Leaders scheme offers some alleviation, in that young researchers with promise might be employed outside the favoured research universities and still get access to funding through this scheme. But this applies only within six years of finishing a PhD and during that time these people are likely to have heavy teaching loads; so how many will get through the gate? If we could be sure that existing centres of excellence would always recognise paradigm-shaking potential in research proposals this might not matter, but the likelihood is that the overall balance of funded research will be a bit more conventional and a bit less challenging.

Hard and soft social science

Do we really need the kind of investment in quantitative methods which is being planned? While the benefit that comes from the ESRC’s major longitudinal studies is not in doubt, many of the problems which are picked out in the ESRC’s priority list seem more suited to the application of disciplines like anthropology and ethnography, psychology, sociology and politics. These disciplines have their quantitative elements but make their best contribution to understanding societal problems and policy and management issues when they work at the micro-level. Researchers who add value to society are able to provide a subtle blend of approaches, designed to suit the key problem to be investigated. An over-emphasis on quantitative methods will lead to us focusing on the problems to which quantitative methods may supply the answer.

Sue Richards is a senior fellow at the Institute of Government. She was formerly professor of public management at the University of Birmingham and has been a senior civil servant.