Richard Bartholomew is Chief Research Officer at the Department for Education, and Joint Head of Government Social Research.
How did you come to choose a social research career?
After undergrad and master’s degrees in sociology, I wanted to work on public policy issues - I’d specialised in political sociology so had a natural interest in how government worked in practice.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
In 1979 (just after Mrs Thatcher had come to power) I took a Research Officer job with the Manpower Services Commission, the quango then running work placement and work experience programmes for young people and the adult unemployed. My first task was working on a major quantitative survey of the long-term unemployed – the first of its kind for several decades. As a very young sociologist I was overawed when the great Michael Young phoned me up to discuss the results.
And your later career?
I've stayed in government social research. First researching on employment and training, then equal opportunities and later with departmental changes, on early years education, and now on children’s services. I find this a challenging but very worthwhile field to work in.
What has been the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
As a fairly junior researcher trying to persuade some hard-nosed benefit fraud investigators to participate in a study of suspected fraudulent claimants using random assignment. We were trying to measure the cost savings made by fraud investigation. The proposal that they should not investigate some suspected fraudsters, for the sake of the research design, ran up against all their instincts. They were an immovable force.
What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Finding out things that are counter-intuitive, things which challenge what everyone assumes to be true – a strong justification for social research.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Neville Butler, who was instrumental – through his vision and sheer persistence – in creating the 1958 and 1970 Birth Cohort studies, and also a driving force behind the Millennium Cohort Study. Without his determination, British social science would be in a much poorer place.
Do you have a favourite quote?
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s famous response to a question about the biggest challenge he had faced as a statesman – ‘Events, my dear boy, events.’ It’s a reality check to researchers’ faith in the persuasiveness of evidence alone but also neatly conveys the often decisive role of the chance coincidence of events – for good or ill.
How would you complete the sentence ‘At heart, I’m…’
At heart I’m infinitely curious about most things – with the significant exception of sport.
What would be your advice to anyone considering a social research career?
If you are fascinated by how and why social change happens and want to have the chance to influence it, then you should consider social research as a career. (But try and also marry into money as a back up plan!).
Interview by William Solesbury July 2011