As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
A professional footballer or a forester, neither of which was likely to happen...
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I stumbled into a job as an interviewer on a crime survey, trying to get some money together to go off to Eastern Europe to teach English.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
The crime survey was being carried out by a maverick criminologist called Richard Kinsey – who was in equal parts maddening and inspiring – and he persuaded me both to sign up a to do a Masters in Criminology and to take on a role as a research assistant on his next project – a study of young people, crime and policing (subsequently published as ‘Cautionary Tales’) which was one of the first to highlight young people’s experiences as victims as well as offenders.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
Through working with Richard, I became an accidental expert in crime surveys and was taken on by the Scottish Office to design and manage a new national crime survey for Scotland (which, until then, had been included in the Home Office’s British Crime Survey series). I spent four years there, but became frustrated by the lack of opportunity to actually do research – although, in retrospect, we did a lot relative to social researchers in government today. With a friend – Steven Hope, now at Ipsos – I put together a four page proposal to set up a social research team at a local commercial research agency (now part of TNS-BMRB). To our surprise – and after an interview over lunch in a pub on Rose Street – they took us on. I stayed for seven years before becoming disillusioned with a series of takeovers that had pulled the centre of decision-making further and further from Edinburgh. Having seen an advert for staff at NatCen in London, I wrote to Norman Glass and asked if he’d be interested in appointing someone based in Edinburgh. Luckily for me, they were just trying to decide what to do about NatCen’s fledgling office in Edinburgh – whether to make a serious go of it or retrench to London – and after another lunch-based interview (much of Norman’s decision-making, I was to discover, involved lunch), I was offered the chance to head it up. At around the same time, an opportunity arose to acquire a small independent research consultancy called Scottish Health Feedback, giving us a critical mass of projects and staff, and a range of additional substantive and methodological expertise. On the back of that, we relaunched as ScotCen, which I have directed ever since.
What has been your best professional moment?
I’m very proud of ScotCen – both in terms of the work we do and the character of the team. But of all the projects I’ve been involved in, few have given me as much satisfaction as one I did many years ago on the experiences of next of kin in fatal accident inquiries. Its recommendations were adopted wholesale by the Crown Office (the prosecution service in Scotland), including the discontinuation of the use of uniformed police officers to cite witnesses for such inquiries – something the next of kin we interviewed (many of whom had lost loved ones in road traffic accidents) found upsetting. That project gave me the first inkling of how research – if conducted well and communicated clearly - can actually shape policy, practice and, ultimately, people’s lives.
Letting staff go following the cuts in funding for government social research after the 2010 general election.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Richard Kinsey was rather flawed as heroes go, but he impressed on me the importance of telling stories through your data and somehow had a knack of making the whole research process seem like a great adventure.
Do you have a favourite quote?
Not really, though the phrase, ‘you can’t edit a blank page’, has had a particular resonance in my professional life!
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Regardless of where you hope eventually to end up, it’s worth spending some time in a contract research/agency environment – there are few other settings in which you’ll learn so much, so quickly.
Interview by William Solesbury