Judith Hanna is Social Science Principal Scientist at Natural England.
How did you know that social research was the career for you?
I think I rather fell into it rather than aiming for it. I did a social science degree in ethnography and sociolinguistics in Australia followed by a fairly random trajectory through a variety of environmental and community relations focused organisations. You could say that I am more of a social research user than researcher per se.
Where do you work at present?
At Natural England - the government agency responsible for the natural environment. I lead a small social science group within a larger Science, Evidence and Analysis team who are mainly ecologists and other natural scientists. Our current challenge is to integrate social science as a key element in developing an interdisciplinary evidence programme. Issues include community participation and building up the evidence on how natural environments provide a basis for human well-being, both physical and psychological – from basic survival through to cultural appreciation and sense of place.
And previously ?
I worked at drawing up pioneering ‘equal opportunities in public employment’ plans for the prisons and justice department in New South Wales. I came over here and worked at CND during the height of the peace movement, then in 1987 I moved to be Assistant Director at what is now the Campaign for Better Transport taking a particular interest in local street environments. After a spell as a transport and land use journalist I moved to the Commission for Racial Equality as an in-house writer and editor, then moved to what is now Volunteering England as Head of Policy. Alongside these jobs I have worked with and chaired the New Economics Foundation and Permaculture Association Britain. I also remain involved with community environmental action in Tottenham where I live.
What has been your greatest social research related achievement?
We have just completed an internal social science review to clarify the social evidence priorities of Natural England This involved extensive interviewing across Natural England and proved to be well worth it - not just for the information it provided but also for the process of active engagement in encouraging colleagues who don’t normally think about social science to articulate why it matters for their environmentally focused work. The review has been warmly welcomed and is now being implemented. Related to this I am also involved in developing a collaborative network with social research colleagues in our sponsor department – DEFRA and our sister agencies under its aegis.
Who is your social research hero/heroine?
Elinor Ostrom for winning an economics Nobel prize on her social science principles for community management of natural resources. Also Mary Douglas for a range of useful conceptual frameworks, Jacquie Burgess for her work on people and local environments and the ever provocative Mayer Hillman.
What is your earliest memory of the SRA?
Going along to an evening seminar soon after I switched to a social science role. I needed to find out how to be a good social scientist and researcher!
Why did you become actively involved and join the board?
Joining the board seemed like a good way to find out how the social research field operates, the things that matter for quality and standards and the inside story on all of the who and how.
What is your role on the board?
I am currently Board Secretary and Company Secretary. The first of these comes down to taking clear minutes and planning discussions/agendas. The Company Secretary role is a legal responsibility to ensure that annual accounts and registration of directors (trustees) are filed with Companies House and the Charity Commission. I am now the trustee with the longest continuity – bridging a vital stretch of corporate memory.
What do you enjoy about your involvement with the SRA, anything you would prefer to avoid?
I particularly enjoy being involved in how social research is developing, emerging topics and debates, key players and knowing about what new work is making waves. Hmm – I don’t actually enjoy business meetings or taking minutes (I’m deaf) or sitting at computers. But the SRA is full of nice people.
Which of the SRA plans are you particularly excited about?
The new Public Affairs initiative that Ceridwen Roberts and Barbara Doig are steering through should enable us to develop a clearer voice championing the importance of social research evidence as a basis for steering policies that work towards making a better society for people to live in. The website redesign will make it easier to use in an interactive way. And for those of us who have been anxiously steering the SRA through the period post the 2008 cuts, the confirmation from our sterling treasurer, Graham Hughes, that the SRA seems to have emerged on a financially stable keel is a huge relief.
Looking forward – where would you like to see social research being in 5 years time?
The ONS wellbeing index needs to help us to really pin down the ways in which the environments in which people live affect their well-being. Also, a wider recognition, particularly in the Treasury, of the importance of qualitative and narrative evidence (alongside quantitative evidence) about why and how people behave and what they really value.
And the SRA in 5 years time?
A library of public affairs position documents on the website as an off the shelf resource that can be used by those working in the field and also by Government Departments and funders to understand the importance of social science evidence.
Interview by Gillian Smith