Saturday, 8 October 2016

Social Science research boosted by right-wing Tory ex-Minister

Peter Lilley, the ex-Tory cabinet minister, gave an unexpected boost to social science research when he implied that social science research was needed to estimate the impact of an administrative change he brought in when he was a minister in the 1990s. But what this (surprising?) boost does illustrate is that there is some hope to defend social science research from what I hear as the increasing howls of 'what's the point of all this' that I hear these days. This is especially strong after the EU referendum and the Brexiteer sneering at 'experts'.

Peter Lilley, in a Radio 4 Programme (broadcast earlier today) was actually discussing whether civil servants, in preparing lists of policy options, should include an option 'of doing nothing'. When asked whether this had led to long term changes in how policies are assessed he responded 'that's something for social science research to determine'! So get your ESRC applications in now, folks (although jolly good luck, because these days only about one in ten or so of proposals get funded!).

This boost was a little unexpected partly because the intensity of dismissal of social science research has strengthened in the wake of the EU referendum, with social scientists being attacked as being 'shamen' in one memorable attack from a right wing opinion leader that I can remember. It's nice to have somebody on the political right who thinks it is sometimes useful.
Of course lots of people say that we social scientists should just focus on teaching.  Now we have to do this of course, as well as research, but what all those wailing at us for spending so much time on research fail to answer is that when we do put a lot of effort into teaching:

Where exactly do we get the material to teach from?

I ask this question when people tackle me on the way that (so they say) academics 'waste' time on doing research when they could be helping students. and I must say that the responses seem pretty thin. People seem to simply ignore the point I make, or refer to some 'body of knowledge' out there which we can use. But where on earth do people think this 'body of knowledge' comes from? The Guardian, or Times perhaps? Well, they in fact tend to either recycle un-evidenced opinion or, wait for it, research published by academics. Or perhaps the Daily Mail? I won't comment in that one. Besides providing students with material to discuss and learn, social science research can answer a lot of questions that the people want to know about (including Peter Lilley it seems).

The Government have got very confused about all of this in their proposals for a 'Teaching Excellence Framework'. Initially at least, they seemed to be moving towards a proposal whereby the universities that did best in the national student satisfaction surveys league tables were allowed to increase their fees. Which seems ok at first sight until you understand that, as a very general rule, the universities that students most want to get into (ie research intensive universities) happen to be the ones that tend to come often towards the bottom of the 'teaching satisfaction' league tables. So would they be starved of funds and forced to sack the boffins?

So what does the Government want to do? Destroy places like Imperial College, and the LSE that don't do well enough in student satisfaction surveys but who generate very high quality research as represented by international league tables? Despite the fact that students want to get into these sorts of places most of all!  Of course, as we can see in Scotland, which boasts lots of top-rated universities (eg Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and others), a fees system is not necessary for UK students.

But maybe the universities should not expect too much help from the Government. After all they are tainted with the liberal internationalism that is so hated now by Brexit Britain.

There is an irony that, unintentionally, the Brexiteers, by bringing down the value of the pound, have made studying in Britain a lot more attractive for overseas students. This might go some way to replacing the loss of EU funds for research if it leads to increased numbers of students coming in from abroad. But I suspect Theresa May will order her ministers come up with some 'options' to put a stop to that sort of comeback!
Of course doing nothing to limit overseas students numbers would be one option that the universities would favour! But will a 'doing nothing' option be on the cabinet committee agenda?
By the way, if you want to join in (or just look at) the 'Energy Politics' facebook group at the University of Aberdeen go to

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