David Martin

David Martin is Professor of Geography at the University of Southampton and a co-Director of ESRC's UK Data Service, the National Centre for Research Methods and the Administrative Data Research Centre - England. For ten years he was coordinator of ESRC's Census Programme and he is currently a member of ESRC Council.

Why did you pursue an academic career?

My undergraduate tutor, Neil Wrigley, persuaded me to apply for an ESRC PhD studentship associated with a grant he had just won to develop a computer mapping system for healthcare planning. My emergent interest in health care had also led me to make applications for the (then new) NHS general management training scheme, and I found myself sitting with offers on my desk from both ESRC and the NHS.

It began to dawn on me that the PhD might let me solve problems that had never been tackled before, whereas the management role - although incredibly worthwhile - would never be original in the same way, and so the first critical choice was made. I was a PhD student in the mid 1980s in the very exciting environment of the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cardiff which became one of ESRC's Regional Research Laboratories. I was drawn into an academic career both by the blossoming of interest in my chosen field of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and by dynamic senior colleagues such as Neil Wrigley, Ian Bracken, Mike Batty, Paul Longley and Stewart Fotheringham - all in Cardiff at that time.

What career achievements are you most proud of?

It has to be the series of innovations that started with my automated zone design software first used by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to create a new system of Output Areas for the 2001 census. I had been a visiting researcher at ONS in 1996 and based on work initially published by Stan Openshaw, produced a GIS tool that could generate the boundaries of geographical areas automatically, given a set of design constraints (for example, all being close to a target population size).

I managed to persuade to adopt this for the 2001 census and that initial work led on to the Super Output Areas on which the government's Indices of Deprivation have been based since 2004, as well as Output Areas and Workplace Zones for the 2011 census, as well as international and academic uses. My other lines of research have been cited and adopted in various ways, but only the zone design gives me the pleasure of looking at almost any map of census data or deprivation in England and Wales made since 2001 and knowing that it is based partly on my own work.

What is the most important issue society is facing today?

Rather than any single policy issue, I think our biggest challenge is to achieve genuinely evidence-based public debate. In the long run, society's ability to adapt and respond is going to be dependent on widespread acceptance of available evidence, even when it cuts across party lines and established positions, involves uncomfortable personal choices or just challenges apathy.

We already have so much research evidence on which to act but are so poor at translating it into practice. To raise the quality of debate in the press, social media and common understanding so that we plan for an ageing population, treat migrants justly and become more sustainable is a massive work of education, but an essential role for social science. That is the only route that will empower decision-makers to make the wisest choices and it seems to me a far more powerful motivation for research impact than any forthcoming Research Excellence Framework!

What do you feel is the most important finding of economics and social science over the past 50 years?

That is a very difficult question: I am drawn to the 1980 'Black Report' which demonstrated something quite fundamental about contemporary society - that in spite of 25 years of a national health care system, patterns of inequality in health outcomes in the UK remained deeply entrenched, reflecting longstanding underlying patterns of income, education, employment, social class and deprivation. Policies aimed at the healthcare system simply could not change these underlying factors.

We may have moved on in many ways, yet the evidence base is still strong - internationally and at many geographical scales - that what we should really focus on is tackling those underlying inequalities rather than the apparent symptoms. Whether it's from the Black Report or Wilkinson and Pickett's 'Spirit Level' , that body of social science findings tells us a consistent and most important message.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ESRC.