Sir Roger Jowell Memorial Lecture 30 May 2017
Sir Roger Jowell (March 1942 - December 2011), was an outstanding British social statistician and a founder member of the SRA. He set up SCPR - now NatCen Social Research and was responsible for establishing several of the UK’s leading social surveys, most famously the British Social Attitudes and the British Election Study. He subsequently moved to City University where he spearheaded the award winning European Social Survey (ESS).
Professor Anand Menon will deliver the fourth annual lecture held in memory of Roger and will speak about what the vote for Brexit means for the UK and its relationship with the countries that remain part of the union. As Chair of the ESRC funded UK in a Changing Europe initiative, Menon is in a unique position to offer valuable insight into this critical issue.
Government concedes significant amendments to Higher Education and Research Bill
In response to lobbying and debate in the House of Lords, the government has issued a number of amendments in an attempt to address some of the significant concerns being raised about the draft bill. The amendments would mean a number of freedoms being enshrined in law for the first time, including ‘the freedoms of academic staff to question and test received wisdom…’. The Government also appears to have accepted the case for the research councils to have autonomy over decisions on discipline-specific funding and has pledged transparency in the allocation of the budget of each council as well as committing to consult widely before tinkering with the structure of the councils. The amendments go some way to addressing concerns that the new umbrella body, UKRI, would be too powerful and open to undue interference from government ministers.
Opportunities to use Understanding Society survey
The Understanding Society Survey opens up a range of possibilities for analysis and testing and two important competitions are now open. Firstly, since the start of 2016 the survey has included a question on whether the UK should leave the EU or remain and in the interests of informing policy and public debate the data generated so far is going to be made available to a limited number of researchers (deadline for applications13 March). The second opportunity is the Understanding Society Innovation Panel which is now open for the next round of bids. The panel is used by researchers to test bed innovative ways of collecting data and for new areas of research (deadline 30 March).
Just about managing?
About four million more people (19 million in 2014/15 compared to 15 million in 2008/9) are living below an adequate standard of living and are just about managing, at best, according to new analysis by the Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRSP). And rising prices combined with stagnant wages means that millions of families are on the tipping point of falling into poverty over the next few years. The analysis is based on the Minimum Income Standard (MIS) research which is underpinned by research with members of the public, in order to identify the things they think households need to be able to afford to have an acceptable standard of living.
Brexit and social science
A note from the AcSS and its Campaign acknowledges the steps already taken to ‘address some of the uncertainty for UK science and research’ following the EU referendum, but points to persistent continuing concerns around the potential loss of income from international students, recruitment and skills gaps from loss of international staff, higher barriers to international research collaborations, and lower levels of research funding. It calls for cross-national research collaborations to be a priority as the details of Brexit are negotiated and says it is essential for a member of the UK negotiating team to be knowledgeable about research and universities. It would also like to see a proactive approach aimed at ensuring UK research teams are not discriminated against in the run up to departure from the EU.
Why we need arts, humanities and social science graduates
The British Academy has launched an important project to provide evidence for why arts, humanities, and social science (AHSS) graduates, and the skills they learn, are vital to the economy and cultural life in the UK and worldwide. The key questions posed are: what do we mean by ‘skills’ and what contribution do individuals with AHSS skills make? What skills do employers want? And what skills will be needed in the future? The Academy hopes to facilitate a national debate about the nature and value of these skills, showing not just the cultural value of arts, humanities and social sciences research and study, but crucially, their economic value in a rapidly changing world.
The Academy has produced an initial review of the evidence and launched a call for evidence with a deadline for contributions of 15 March. Sir Ian Diamond is leading the project which it is envisaged will report by the Autumn of this year.
Sir Mark Walport appointed chief executive of UKRI
Current government Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport, has been appointed as chief executive of the new umbrella body – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Sir Mark was responsible for instigating the ‘Nurse’ review of research councils that led to the establishment of the new body which he has also been closely involved in designing. UKRI will come into full operation in spring 2018 and it remains to be seen how far it is successful in delivering strategic and cross disciplinary research. Sir Mark’s appointment has not been universally welcomed and fears continue to be expressed about whether he is too close to government as well as the implications of new arrangements for the autonomy of individual research councils, including the ESRC.
Opportunities in the ‘post-truth’ era
A piece in a previous edition of this newsletter focused on the dangers posed by ‘the post-truth society’. Writing in The Guardian, Government Chief Statistician John Pullinger is far more positive and suggests the new era offers huge opportunities. He sees a key role for statisticians, and by implication social scientists, in working out and presenting what the truth is in a context where there is far more data available than ever before. The data revolution also provides opportunities to gain new insights, more quickly and in more fine-grained form. However, in order to achieve this he thinks the role of statisticians needs to change.
Industrial strategy - role of social science?
The Government’s industrial strategy, published earlier this week, is more interventionist in tone than previous incarnations and confirms a commitment to £4.7 billion of new funds for science and innovation. In a short blog responding to the strategy David Halpern, Head of the Behavioural Insights Team, notes that for too long economic policy has been based around unrealistic assumptions about human behaviour. He goes on to discuss the opportunities presented for building behavioural and social science thinking into economic policies concerned with, for example, improving management, raising productivity and boosting economic growth based on a better understanding of ‘what works’.
The British Academy and others have also welcomed the strategy and the commitment to additional R&D funding. In addition, as Lord Stern, President of the Academy has pointed out, it is important not to forget that the service sector contributes 80% of UKGDP and depends critically on skills gained from studying and researching social science and humanities subjects.
The Innovation Strategy is open for consultation until 17 April.
Does the big data era spell the death of statistics and social science?
In a recent piece for The Guardian William Davies discusses the background to the current antipathy to ‘experts’ and outlines some of the significant challenges facing statisticians and social scientists in the new age of big data. He sees a significant threat coming from data scientists who utilise the vast array of data now available on our habits, social media postings and similar in order to produce psychological insights into vast populations.
The Campaign for Social Science annual lecture held towards the end of last year touched on a similar theme. Beth Noveck traced the longstanding tensions between ‘expertise’ and democracy and went on to outline how new technologies could create ‘open systems of governing that are both more legitimate and more effective’.
Research Excellence Framework (REF)
The REF is used to assess the quality of research being done in UK higher education institutions and underpins the allocation of several billion pounds of funding every year. The consultation about the new REF was launched last month following on from the earlier ‘Nurse review’. The aim is to reduce burden of the assessment process, limit ‘gaming’ and shift the focus away from individuals towards institutional level assessments. The consultation document poses 44 questions including how staff and outputs for submission to the REF are selected, whether outputs can be portable between institutions when people move on and how ‘impact’ and the ‘research environment’ are assessed.
The deadline for responding is 17 March and we will report on key comments emerging as the deadline nears. The new rules are likely to be finalized in the summer with responsibility for implementation passing to the new body ‘Research England’ next April.