Gillian Smith spent many years working as a social researcher in government before taking early retirement at the end of 2010. She has been editing the SRA e-newsletter since 2012 and also pursues a number of personal interests, including writing a family history.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be more or less every profession I came into contact with including a doctor, nurse, shoe shop assistant, though I don’t recall ever wanting to be a rubbish collector!
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I was fascinated by economic and social history, my favourite subject at secondary school, particularly debates about the key drivers of demographic, social and economic change in Lancashire where I was brought up. I guess this influenced my subsequent subject choices. I went to the University of Sheffield to study Economic and Social History but ended up majoring in sociology because I realised I wanted to pursue a career in social policy or social research.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
I worked as a social researcher in Social Science Branch of the then Department of Employment. My first project was about the operation of the industrial tribunal system in a context (in the early1980’s) in which the incoming government’s top priority was to make major changes to industrial relations and trade unions. This is a stark example of the sometimes apparent disconnect between available evidence and policy intent and my experiences there proved to be invaluable in handling tricky situations later in my career.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I moved through several research posts at the Department of Employment and spent some time abroad working on a project for the Council of Europe. In order to broaden my experience I moved to the old Department of the Environment to head up the branch responsible for inner cities/urban research and advice. The period leading up to and the years after the 1997 election were very exciting. Amongst other things I was responsible for deprivation indices and it soon became apparent that the previous methodology needed a complete overhaul to cope with ballooning interest in geographical patterns of deprivation. The publication of the Indices of Deprivation 2000 produced by the University of Oxford was a major achievement. Although less than perfect due to a lack of small area data compared to what is available today, it was used to inform the targeting of billions of pounds of government spending. During this period I also spent two enjoyable months on a ESRC funded secondment to the relatively new Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the LSE.
Early in 2001 I moved to the Department for Transport on promotion to head up a new ‘Transport Research Unit’ and I became Head of Profession for Social Research soon afterwards. The situation I inherited was ‘less than ideal’ with millions of pounds worth of pretty useless research being generated and my first few years were spent reviewing, revamping, and injecting some specialist input into different parts of DfT. The NatCen review of the Department’s social research, published in 2005, helped in securing more specialist social research resource and input. Key achievements at DfT included research and policy advice on public engagement with and factors driving the acceptability, or otherwise, of road user charging, climate change, issues around sustainable transport and devising a method to factor social impacts into economic appraisals.
What has been your best professional moment?
In 2011 I received an honorary degree from the University of the West of England in recognition of my work in furthering social research at DfT.
On arrival at the Dept of Environment in 1994 I inherited responsibility for an evaluation of the impact of urban policy, publication of which had already been delayed for 18 months. Although we gained permission to publish within weeks of my arrival, before I could publish, a leaked, highly negative story about government supressing research evidence hit the front page of a national newspaper on the morning the minister in question was due to deliver a keynote speech on urban policy! Subsequent publication protocols and similar have helped to reduce the number of incidents of this nature but those located outside government, as well as insiders, should be ever vigilant to expose problems and help ensure research funded from the public purse appears in a timely and accessible fashion.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
I am not going to provide any names but I admire anyone who flies the flag for robust evidence that addresses key and sometimes difficult issues in a context where independent and robust research is under threat due to budgetary and other pressures.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Go for it! Develop skills across a range of methods and subject areas early on, maintain those skills and grab the opportunities around you to work in interesting, innovative and potentially influential areas of policy or methodological development.