Exaggerated Claims: The ESRC, 50 Years On


David Walker

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    About The Author

    David Walker is Head of Policy for the Academy of Social Sciences. For seven years he was Chair of the ESRC Methods and Infrastructure Committee, after seven years on ESRC Council. He is Chair of the governing board for Understanding Society and a member of UK Biobank Ethics and Governance Committee. During a career in journalism and public affairs, he worked for The Times Higher Education Supplement, The Economist, The Times, the BBC and the Guardian, where he was founding editor of Public magazine. His books include Cameron’s Coup co-written with Polly Toynbee (Guardian Faber Publishing, 2015), The Verdict (Granta, 2010), Unjust Rewards (Granta, 2008), Sources Close to the Prime Minister with Peter Hennessy and Michael Cockerell (MacMillan, 1985) and Media Made in California with Jeremy Tunstall (Oxford University Press, 1981).


    This is in part a labour of autobiography, using my own cuttings from The Times Higher Education Supplement (where I was once social sciences correspondent) and contributions to New Society, The Times, Guardian and other media. I also declare an old financial interest. As holder of an SSRC Studentship I did a master’s but, along with many others at the time, then failed to complete a PhD – to the topic of which neither my supervisor nor the SSRC paid the least attention. So I added in a small way to the political pressure on the SSRC mounting from the late 1970s onwards. I can bring empathy to the SSRC’s survival as a friendless quango, having worked at the Audit Commission when its doom was pronounced by the Cameron government, albeit by a Tory minister less intellectually complex than the SSRC’s nemesis, Sir Keith Joseph.

    To make amends for squandering my studentship I have over the years contributed time and enthusiasm to ESRC projects, as a serial member of advisory committees then, from 2006, a member of the Council itself. On it, I first chaired the Information Committee, then the Research Resources Board, which became the Methods and Infrastructure Committee. This is, however, in no way an official project. The ESRC has known about it, but that is all. I acknowledge the assistance of Jacky Clake, head of information, in providing material from the archive at Swindon.

    I would like to dedicate the book to Sharon, Jane and Tessa, who demonstrate that whatever commitments a social scientist takes on, in government, organisational life and academe, she retains the capacity to hold roles and institutional settings at an analytical distance.

    More a critique than celebration … 50 years of ambiguity, missed opportunities and muddling through. Walker captures the enduring tensions that have characterised ESRC – and UK social science more broadly. A ‘must read’ for all social scientists, especially those who want to influence the next 50 years.

    Jonathan Grant, King’s College London

    David Walker offers a characteristically sharp-minded – and sharp-worded – verdict on the first half-century of the UK’s research council for the social sciences, once the SSRC now the Economic and Social Research Council. If he privileges policy research over other forms, and focuses on relationships with Whitehall (and the ‘public’) over those with universities (and social scientists themselves), that does not diminish the power of his critique. If the vigour of his analysis and ability to stimulate controversy may tend in the eyes of some to undermine his own thesis that the social sciences have been marginalised, others will see these same characteristics as proof of the social sciences’ enduring creativity – and challenge.

    Peter Scott, University College London

    David Walker’s analysis is incisive and hard hitting. Anyone who believes in the power of social science to inform better policy making should take his criticisms seriously.

    Sue Duncan, Former Chief Government Social Researcher and Head of the Government Social Research Service
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