Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Annex 4

Memorandum from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)


  1.  The ESRC's portfolio is incredibly broad and in some of the areas within its remit it would be true to say that interest and demand at undergraduate and postgraduate levels is buoyant and that there are no significant problems with the recruitment of researchers and academic staff. ESRC recognise that the expansion in student numbers in recent years has had a direct effect on staff numbers in popular areas. There are however other areas where there are significant difficulties with the recruitment and retention of high quality people; where the quality of research is not as high as we would wish or where the size and/or age profile of the existing research community is such that there are likely to be significant problems in the years ahead.

  2.  There are a number of systemic problems: it is now extremely difficult to recruit to posts in quantitative areas of social science. This stems from the lack of quantitative skills at undergraduate and school level and the fact that in some areas, the alternative career options are far more lucrative. A further generic area is the lack of social science researchers with language skills, particularly in non-European languages. There are also significant concerns relating to social statistics, demography, social work and empirical research in law, where the community has always been relatively small but where there are relatively few new people coming through. Finally while there has been a boom in the numbers of staff in business schools this has not been matched by the development of research capacity. ESRC is leading a major programme under SR2000 but this will only contribute to improving the situation, it will not solve it.


  3.  The workforce is ageing. In the next 10 years 31% of social scientists are due to retire, and major problems are likely to emerge unless urgent action is taken. As the table below illustrates, there are very serious problems in a number of key social science disciplines, just as there are for physics, mathematics and chemistry where there is widely acknowledged concern about longer term sustainability.

  The pattern is not promising particularly in Economics and Management and Business Studies. Impending capacity problems are also clearly evident in Education, Linguistics, Social Work, Sociology and Planning.

  4.  Recruitment and retention difficulties have exacerbated these problems in key disciplines. For example, in Economics and Management and Business Studies the prospects of more lucrative employment opportunities in the private sector, has meant many promising researchers have turned their backs on academic careers. In addition, the highly competitive nature of the global labour market in these disciplines is making it increasingly difficult to attract top-class researchers from outside the UK. Data on the number of UK doctoral students registered in economics between 1994-95 and 2002-03 showed a fall of 31% from 520 to 360.

  5.  In some smaller disciplines recruitment and retention problems are also threatening the sustainability of the research base. For example, Social Statistics and Demography are both disciplines where the general lack of quantitative skills is posing serious challenges for future research capabilities. It is critical that we have the capacity in the UK to collect, understand and analyse complex data in relation to a range of social and economic issues. Moreover, there already exist a large number of datasets, many of them held by ESRC funded investments or in central government, which are under-utilised in terms of the secondary work that could be carried out on them. It is also critical that non-academic employers, especially government, can attract people with the necessary skills to work with these data. The early findings arising from the current Inquiry on Empirical Research in Law demonstrate similar problems. In Languages, capacity problems are particularly pronounced in small sub-specialisms such as Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Asian Studies. This is seriously blunting the ability to understand these vast and important regions of the world and to position the UK to exploit future economic opportunities.

  6.  The one area we have reviewed recently on a more detailed basis is the field of education research where we are aware of a number of different concerns. These include: the high average age (54) of education researchers, with two thirds of the current academic community over 50 years old; difficulty in recruiting high quality research staff; the overall quality and impact of educational research, including the outcomes of the 2001 RAE under which only two 5* Units were identified; the relative shortage of large-scale quantitative research and of research in particular areas (eg lifelong learning and widening participation); and, career pathways and training, particularly for individuals moving from practice into research. As an applied area, education researchers need both rigorous research training and experience of teaching/professional work within an appropriate educational environment. The target group is therefore the early/mid-career practitioner rather than the newly qualified undergraduate. Recent increases in teachers' salaries are compounding this problem. To give two recent examples, a salary of over £25k was agreed for an unnamed RA on an ESRC grant to allow for the recruitment of someone with classroom experience and, in our Teaching and Learning Research Programme, we have allowed an appointment at £30,660 in order to recruit someone with credibility in both research and practice.


  7.  The ESRC is taking steps to address a number of these issues. For example, Economics has been identified as a priority area for the allocation of studentships. Similarly, additional awards have been allocated to Social Statistics and the development of quantitative methods. The Council is currently administering a scheme with the ODPM to build capacity in planning by providing 144 new one year housing and planning bursaries per annum for the next three years. Major capacity building elements have also been included under the Teaching and Learning Programme and AIM initiative to strengthen the research base in Education and Management respectively.

  8.  ESRC will, however, need to commit more funds to training and development over the next few years if we are to attempt to reverse the long term sustainability problems. This new funding will be targeted on a priority set of disciplines, where current evidence suggests the need for functional renewal is most pressing. These are: Economics, Management and Business Studies, Linguistics, Socio-Legal Studies, advanced quantitative methods, Demography and Social Work.

  9.  It is essential that we work closely with other bodies, such as the Funding Councils and other Research Councils, to address these issues. ESRC are starting to do this. For example, as noted in paragraph 20 of the RCUK submission, the Council are developing with AHRB and the Funding Councils an initiative to build capacity in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Asian and East European studies.

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