Fail: ESRC

About a month ago there was a quiet storm in an ivory-embossed tea cup about the usefulness of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). In an excellent article, David Walker asked why, when social science should be making a fundamental contribution to policy and practice in the UK, does it have nothing much to say about how to tackle, in a visible and effective way, the really big social questions? The response from ESRC’s Jane Elliott and Paul Sooben, suggested that the value of ESRC lies in funding research that has an influence “behind the scenes”, subtly shaping policy, public attitudes and understanding in a self-effacing, modest sort of way. The absence of any ESRC “branded” input on any of the big social debates – Brexit, child poverty, education – was just a measure of this modesty and of the unseen (and unfelt) tectonic level of the council’s importance.

Perhaps it is true that a butterfly flapping its wings in Swindon can remedy a world banking crisis? But I’m inclined to think not. More likely, the ESRC has just consistently failed to fund research that addresses real social and economic problems. And, in austere times, that’s little short of a scandal. The ESRC line in response to David Walker’s arguments doesn’t persuade. Behind the scenes influence? Well, plenty of organisations seek to influence invisibly government policy and public attitudes. The tobacco industry, arms dealers, possibly the Illuminati. Most people don’t like them very much. Public money should not be used to do that! But, whether we like them or not doesn’t really matter. What’s more important is that the claim that ESRC research has subtle yet powerful influence just isn’t true. Its very simple, the ESRC has a track record for funding the wrong sort of research: small scale, incremental work of little or no real impact.

Take my area or research expertise, psychology. The range of social issues that could be investigated from a psychological perspective is huge – social justice, crowd behaviour, child poverty, positive youth development… In reality, however, the ESRC’s funding strategy over many years appears to have focussed on a narrow remit of funding small scale experimental studies in language, theoretical aspects of memory, and more recently (and perversely) neuroscience. Much of the psychology research funded by council would be unrecognisable as social science anywhere else in the world.

Take one particularly popular area for ESRC funding – the psychology of language. Sadly, ESRC took down its list of historic grants recently. But, before this happened I ran a quick count of ESRC awards and by my estimate upwards of £25million has been used to support research into the psychology of language over the past 12 years or so. There has been a particularly vibrant stream of funding into work on theories of language. Where has this got us? Well, subtle influences are hard to measure but perhaps one obvious area of social benefit is in how children learn and use language. Has this investment in language research filtered through to UK schools? No. Over the past 8 years the UK’s comparative performance on PISA measures of literacy – the international standards of educational performance – has consistently dropped.

Why has that happened? The research into language has doubtless been an internationally excellent example of its kind. But there has been minimal funding of intervention studies, and applied or interdisciplinary approaches to real world language problems. But its worse than that. Because not only does ESRC fund the wrong psychology, too often, it simply misses the important questions. Recently I’ve been involved with editing an issue of a journal focusing on positive youth development. This is a leading psychology journal and my co-editors and I were overwhelmed with the examples of positive intervention studies applying psychology to solve problems for disadvantaged youth across the world. We received and accepted only one study from the UK: an excellent experimental study. But there were no intervention studies. No analysis of positive youth development in UK. This is worrying because elsewhere in the world psychologists claim the intellectual ground on social issues; in UK has lost its way by trying too hard to demonstrate the machismo of being a “proper” (i.e., natural) science.

ESRC tries to speak the speak in impact, but fails to make genuine impact because funding decisions continue to demonstrate that impact and engagement don’t really matter.  If you doubt it, just look, for instance, the lack of clarity about what social science should be funded. For instance, years after MRC, EPSRC and even BBSRC issued clear statements about funding in neuroscience, ESRC remains a bastion for such work. It is truly bizarre that the economic and social research council – the body that should be making a real societal impact – is keeping fMRI scanners whirring away across the country with grants that often fail to deliver any meaningful societal impact. In fact one hears of exceptional research proposals now turned down because they fail to include the additional costs of scanning and of psychology heads encouraging junior staff to include an fMRI component regardless of whether it is appropriate to answer the research question. Don’t get me wrong, neuroscience work is also brilliant, important and useful. Even neuroscientists admit there’s often a problem about applying knowledge from the area into social and economic research. For ESRC the balance has gone badly awry.

At the very least ESRC, like the other councils did some time ago, should issue a statement on the appropriateness of deploying huge amounts of funding to pay for top dollar scanning time. Its very curious the body charged with breaking new ground in economic and social research is the only research council not to have done so! That would be a start. But thats not the main problem for the council. There needs to be an overhaul of their funding priorities (and processes) if UK social science stands a chance in the future. When it comes to funding research, as well as many other things, you do tend to reap what you sow.