Beverley Bishop and Alison Higgins share the post of Chief Social Researcher at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). They have chosen to provide a dual profile covering their early careers and decisions as well as discussing what they do at the HSE and advice for those considering social research as a career.
As children what did you want to be when you grew up?
We were amazed to find out that we both wanted to be politicians.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
Beverley Bishop (BB): By accident! After university I worked in Japan teaching social science. I became very interested in Japanese workplace practices and I decided to do a PhD on women in the Japanese workforce. I so enjoyed interviewing women workers and employers that I thought I’d like to make a career of it.
Alison Higgins (AH): Again by accident – I was sitting in a café with a group of friends after finishing my undergraduate degree and one of my friends saw an advert in the Guardian for government social researchers and said to me ‘Why don’t you apply?’ I did and that was it.
What were your first professional job? And first projects there?
BB: I ran out of money when I was writing up my PhD (it took me quite a long time to complete!), so I got a job with the Department for Education and Skills, originally seeing it as a stopgap before an academic research career. But I immediately felt more at home with government social research work than academia. I loved the pace, the interaction with policy and practitioners and the chance to undertake a variety of projects – mainly to do with young people at risk. The evaluation of the Connexions service was a big one, as was the evaluation of the Education Maintenance Allowance.
AH: Department for National Savings and my first project was a staff survey looking at the impact of organisational change on staff satisfaction, engagement etc.
Where did your careers go next? What motivated those moves?
BB: Personal circumstances really. When I met my husband, he was living in Liverpool and I was living in Sheffield. We were keen to find somewhere convenient for both of us, and then we both got opportunities to work in Wellington, New Zealand: him as an academic, and me at the Centre for Social Research and Evaluation in the Ministry of Social Development – again fascinating stuff, working on the New Zealand Living Standards Survey and evaluating a number of projects designed to help Sickness and Invalids’ Benefit clients into work. When I moved back to the UK, I got a job with GHK, an employee-owned research consultancy that I’d always been very impressed with when I worked with them at DfES. I stayed there for two and a half years working on social capital, key worker living and learning and skills, before moving to HSE to take up a Principal Research Officer position.
AH: My first job was on a temporary contract so I needed to move on. I applied for a job at the Department of the Environment working on homelessness and social housing because the policy areas were of great interest to me. I enjoyed working there so much I stayed for 8 years before taking up a post on promotion at HSE.
Tell us about your current roles
We share the role of Chief Social Researcher at the Health and Safety Executive. We are located in the Economic and Social Analysis Unit, which consists of 5 economists, 4 social researchers and 2 psychologists. The role sharing works very well, allowing us enough flexibility to undertake Head of Profession roles (Alison represents HSE on the Cross-Government Evaluation group for example, and Bev has recently finished working on a cross-departmental project to improve capability in government social research). We also pursue strategic projects of our own to improve HSE’s use of evidence: Bev has been working on embedding behavioural insights in policymaking, and Alison has been leading on improving the evidence we get from consultations with the public and industry. Working for HSE is really interesting as HSE is relatively small all the team get to work on a wide range of projects covering subjects ranging from how to communicate effectively on risk, to exploring practices around the disposal of human remains.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
BB: I don’t have many heroes. I think social research is generally more of a collaborative discipline where good results come about through team efforts. I do have a lot of respect though for the late Eleanor Rathbone (the researcher and MP) – she investigated social and industrial conditions in Liverpool, and co-founded the School of Social Science at the University of Liverpool. She also made sure that her research had an impact, making a good evidence based case for family allowances to be paid to mothers and for cheap milk for the children of the unemployed.
AH: Florence Nightingale for her perhaps lesser known efforts in relation to statistics and helping to popularise the graphical representation of statistical data, which she did with great effect in relation to the causes of patient mortality in the field hospital in which she worked. Florence demonstrated that more deaths were from preventable diseases than from patient wounds, which had a big impact on the care of patients. Her achievements particularly in the context of Victorian England provide a great example of the impact of evidence and the importance of how evidence is presented and used in order to make a difference to people’s lives.
Do you have a favourite quote?
BB: When I started at HSE, the then Chief Social Researcher, David Riley, told me ’What we do here is save people’s lives’, which really stuck with me. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the research you do plays a part in creating an evidence base that can be used to make a difference: making workplaces safer, educating children better, improving health and social care, etc.
AH: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts” (sign hanging in Albert Einstein’s office)
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
It’s the best job in the world! Evidence based policy requires the generation and use of sound evidence – as a social researcher both in government and outside of government your contribution can make a difference to the lives of people..