Sue Duncan is an independent research consultant and a Visiting Professor at the University of Lincoln. She advises on professional and technical research issues, as well as effective use of research in decision making, and specialises in training and coaching. She is the current President of the Social Policy Association; a trustee of the Stroke Association and a member of the Department for Transport’s Scientific Advisory Council. She has written and lectured widely on policy, research, research utilisation and evidence based policy making.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was very young, I wanted to be a nun, but that was probably because I lived next to a convent and liked the uniform! Later I wanted to be a teacher, then a social worker.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I studied research methods as part of my sociology degree at Bath University. Teaching at Bath was embedded in a research culture and I recall finding ‘Willmott and Young’s ‘Family and Kinship in East London’ fascinating. Sociology taught me to think analytically and, as part of my course, I worked as a research assistant to one of my lecturers; the hands on experience of interviewing and analysis got me hooked on social research.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
I started as a Research Officer in the Department for Communities and Local Government, where I worked on housing research. My first project was a study of rent arrears and I spent ages analysing boxes of manual records in numerous local authority housing departments. The research findings were widely used by local authorities to develop new approaches to tackling rent arrears.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I rose up the career ladder at DCLG, until I became a Principal Research Officer, responsible for homelessness research. The issue was high on the political agenda and Ministers kept asking questions we couldn’t answer; there was a genuine interest in understanding the problem and in finding solutions. I devised a programme of research, which was exciting, but technically very challenging, pushing the boundaries of my methodological and research design skills. It was my job to make sure Ministers considered research findings in formulating policy; I was a member of the policy review team and spent a lot of time in high level meetings with Ministers and senior policy makers. This was long before ‘evidence based policy making’; I won’t pretend that the research dictated the policy – and I don’t believe that was the goal – but I was successful in bringing research findings into the discussion. The trick I think was that I was prepared to use my judgement in interpreting research findings to address the problem under discussion. I also worked closely with academics and other researchers, research funders, local authority Homelessness Units and homeless charities and I learned that the best research is a team effort, involving all stakeholders.
After 12 years, I was keen to try my hand at running my own research unit. I was promoted to Chief Research Officer at the Department for Work and Pensions, where research was a bit of a backwater; I set about raising its profile and making it an integral part of the policy process. By the time I left it was a force to be reckoned with and had a good reputation across government. It was my success at DWP that led to my being promoted to Director in the Centre for Management and Policy Studies in the Cabinet Office and later in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit; both these jobs were about getting research used in government decision making. The culmination of my career in government was when I became the first ever Chief Government Social Researcher, leading the 1000 members of the Government Social Research Service. I now work as a consultant and I’m still involved in social research, mainly in advisory and teaching roles. Social research is a hard habit to kick.
What has been your best professional moment?
Research is full of lows and highs – for example, fieldwork doesn’t always go according to plan but, on the other hand, research can provides genuinely new and valuable insights. I always knew I’d been successful, when a policy maker quoted a research finding,as if it was an obvious truth; it demonstrated that they had been listening! One of the high spots in my career was when the University of Bath awarded me an Honorary Doctorate; to have my efforts to develop social research in government recognised was a huge honour and aptly reflected the role that Bath played in my career.
There were the inevitable challenges, many of them about the disconnect between research and policy timetables and dealing with research findings that challenged popular wisdom; these are part of doing research for policy. Probably the most embarrassing moment was early in my career, when, after a Ministerial meeting, where I thought I’d been particularly effective, I swept out of the room only to find I had walked into a large cupboard! I don’t know if it dented my authority but it certainly dented my ego.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
That would have to be the late Roger Jowell. A co-founder of NatCen, (and of course the SRA), he was hugely important in the development of high quality social research, which we take for granted today. He was a great ambassador for the profession and was fearless in standing up for it. He was always was very generous in drawing on his extensive knowledge and experience to help others and many of us benefited from his wisdom.
Do you have a favourite quote?
‘Believe you can and you’re halfway there.‘ (Theodore Roosevelt) has helped me be brave through some tough times.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Social research has the power to make a difference. Go for it!