Nigel Meager is Director of the Institute for Employment Studies
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Like many teenage boys in the 60s, I wanted to be a rock/blues guitarist (the next Jimi Hendrix would have been fine). Sadly my talent was limited.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
My initial academic interests were maths and physics, but I had always been politically and socially engaged, and as an undergraduate at Oxford switched to Politics, Philosophy and Economics, followed by an Economics MPhil
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
When studying economics, I was always intrigued by the notion of a ‘labour market’, and found the treatment of it in traditional economics as if it were analogous to a market for goods or services deeply problematic. This led me to an interest in all the structures, institutions and processes of the labour market which made it different and which meant that the simple predictions of economic models didn’t apply, and which required a broader social science perspective. My first job, in 1979 as a Research Officer at a small multidisciplinary centre at Bath University (the Centre for European Industrial Studies) on an ESRC-funded project on occupational mobility, allowed me to pursue this interest further.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I spent four years in the early 80s as a Research Fellow at the Department of Social and Economic Research at Glasgow, in those days a leading centre for labour market studies, again with a multi-disciplinary emphasis. Although trained as an economist I’ve always leaned towards the boundaries of economics and sociology, and always believed that the best social research is open to several disciplines (and blends both quantitative and qualitative approaches). At Glasgow I worked on local labour markets dynamics in de-industrialising regions, before moving to Sussex to the Institute of Manpower Studies as it then was, because of my interest in policy-oriented rather than purely academic research. I’ve been at what’s now IES, pretty much ever since, apart from a fantastic period at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB – Social Science Research Centre) in the early 90s, learning about internationally comparative research.
What has been your best professional moment?
When I was appointed Director of IES in 2004 and realising that I had a real opportunity to grow a research organisation, and shape its values, which are all about generating and using robust evidence to influence employment policy and practice, for public and social benefit. I didn’t know then, of course, quite how hard it would be.
The period in 2010 when, like many research organisations, we faced a massive reduction in funding, and a climate of real doubt about the extent to which the new Coalition government recognised the value of evidence and research in the social sciences. Having overseen significant growth in the Institute in the preceding decade, and a great broadening of the research topics covered, I faced retrenchment and cut-backs. While the Institute has, through diversification and changed ways of working, come through in pretty good shape, it was nevertheless a dispiriting time, during which we said goodbye to many excellent researchers.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Günther Schmid, my boss in Berlin, – a lovely man and a multi-disciplinary social scientist par excellence. He sparked my interest in internationally comparative research, and was a wonderful example of a social scientist who’s had a real influence on policy at regional, national and European level. Although retired, he continues to research and contribute to policy debates, while running a charity for disadvantaged kids in East Africa with his wife (www.childdevelopmentfund.com)
Do you have a favourite quote?
Ludwig Wittgenstein said something about philosophy, which has always seemed equally applicable to social (and probably other types of) research: “Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open.”
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
After reminding them that they will never make much money, I would urge them not to specialise too early but to spend the formative years of their career acquiring a broad palette of methodological skills (both quantitative and qualitative), and covering a wide terrain of subject areas and topics, while reading as widely as possible. Too often I see incredibly well-qualified young researchers, with an extremely narrow skills base and a poor knowledge of society and economy outside the subject of their PhDs, and little or no understanding of public policy in the social arena.