Daniel Stunell is Programme Manager for Research and Evaluation at Zero Waste Scotland, a not-for-profit environmental organisation, funded by the Scottish Government and European Regional Development Fund.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
A spaceman. It’s cliched but true.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I studied economics and history at A-level, which I loved. I then did an undergraduate degree in international relations, largely because the discipline, and the specific course at LSE, allowed you to take in a wide range of subjects. I find human society and interactions inherently fascinating at every scale: the local customer knowledge of a small shopkeeper; the unnoticed-by-most complexity of a local authority running recycling services on Scottish islands week in week out; the politics of international climate negotiations; and the ceaseless accumulation of individual, business, and policy decisions driving our heating planet.
I studied international politics and social research methods for my master’s degree, and the inclusion of research skills was a deliberate career choice by that stage.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
Between degrees I worked as a teacher of English as a foreign language for a couple of years. There was no research element, but the language insights remain surprisingly helpful for question design even today. My first research job was in market research at Cambridge University Press, helping to develop their English language teaching materials. At the same time I did some distance learning courses focused on environmental science, because I knew my perfect research job would be in an environmental policy arena.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I took a temporary contract with WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) as a research analyst, working on their research into pro-environmental behaviours around recycling and food waste prevention. This was exactly the kind of job I wanted, and my market research background fitted well with the immediate vacancy, but it was a risk leaving a permanent contract for a temporary one.
I then applied for and got a somewhat equivalent permanent role at Zero Waste Scotland, but one covering a much wider range of research challenges (and located closer to the mountains!). I’ve been involved with projects looking at the social benefits of support to third sector organisations, evaluated investments in recycling collections and reprocessing, estimated food waste levels in Scotland, and investigated barriers to business take up of energy efficiency and circular economy support, to name just a few. The variety remains one of the best features of working here. The opportunity to use evaluation insight and approaches to help with intervention design and operational planning can be very rewarding too.
As the organisation’s remit has grown, so too has the analytical team, and I now manage a small team of researchers. It’s great working with a team of fellow specialists - it’s always nice to not be the only researcher in the room.
What has been your best professional moment?
I most enjoy solving a research problem – teasing out what it is people actually need to know, and figuring out how we can get that evidence in a way that will actually be useful to informing what they do next. One example of this was research we undertook to understand and quantify the scale of litter and flytipping in Scotland. We looked at every aspect of it and really rethought the best available approach to each part of the problem. Some areas of our work still refer to back to this project today, more than five years later.
Mostly projects not done. Several times in my career I have designed projects which then failed to get funding. In one case we had a unique fieldwork window dependent on external circumstances. Despite a lot of preparatory work the project was unable to proceed, and the research question remains unanswered.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Anyone who is willing to speak truth to power when evidence findings are unwelcome.
Do you have a favourite quote?
“The chances that we’re already correct in everything we believe are essentially zero” (Duncan J Watts).
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Our rapidly changing world will not be short of questions to answer. It might be tempting to see the climate crisis as a science and engineering problem, but all the ecological understanding and technical fixes in the world can’t help us if we don’t also choose to apply that knowledge, and that’s a social science problem. We absolutely need the insights and understanding social research can provide to let us transition to a greener future effectively and fairly. But I also think interdisciplinary literacy will be more important than ever to being effective social researchers, so take every opportunity to step outside your home discipline, whatever you consider it to be.