David Walker reviews eight social science areas that have benefited from ESRC funding in the past 50 years - looking at some of the social issues they have covered, and impact and influence of the research.
Money and business: The 'back-bedroom' computer games industry becomes a global enterprise
Improving the quality of management was one of the earliest focuses of the SSRC. Other longstanding themes include organisational performance and innovation, and one of the first acts of the reconstituted ESRC was to convene a cross-research councils committee on the management of innovation.
The Advanced Institute for Management looked in depth at how organisations use knowledge to improve productivity, offshoring, risk assessment, response to regulation, and the clustering of kindred businesses. One of its projects showed how the UK computer games industry can retain its massive creativity as it grows from a back-bedroom hobby activity to a properly structured global enterprise.
There has also been microeconomic analysis of topics such as regional assistance, the housing market and small business. This work has stayed up to date with work on internet shopping and the future of the high street.
Public services: More home care will free up hospital beds
Prominent names include Chelly Halsey, the Oxford sociologist involved in the 'educational priority' areas, Christopher Hood and his studies of the 'new public management' and regulation, Carol Propper on competition in health, and Alan Maynard with the pioneer health economics centre at the University of York. In a recent finding, they have shown that 'bed-blocking' is a real effect, and that hospital beds can be freed up if more care home capacity is created. Also important was research on a very different public service – with the Ministry of Defence on matching the structure of armed forces to projections of the UK's place in the world.
Politics and governance: What does it mean to be British?
In the 1970s the SSRC began supporting the sequence of British election studies that had begun with the 1964 general election, amassing evidence of the 'de-alignment' of class and voting. The ESRC later became a supporter of the annual British Social Attitudes survey, which over the years since the early 1980s has provided a great sweep of changing views on topics such as what it means to be British or the fairness of the benefits system.
Large projects in the 1990s looked at Whitehall and territorial and local government and elected mayors. With devolution, the ESRC has instigated programmes on constitutional change, most recently the Future of the UK and Scotland project, launched to provide voters in the September 2014 referendum with facts and analysis.
Thanks to the ESRC, social scientists are now part of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, helping MPs with fact and analysis. In the great debate of 2014, the Institute for Fiscal Studies was a trusted source of analysis on the financial aspects of a possible independent Scotland.
International: How do British attitudes compare to international neighbours?
The SSRC was an early partner with other countries in Europe, launching a data-sharing protocol in 1976. Later the ESRC backed UK participation in the European Social Survey, producing comparative data on attitudes towards topics including migration and engagement in the European Union (itself now the subject of research aimed at informing a possible referendum on UK membership). ESRC researchers have been encouraged to access EU and US funds. During the Cold War, Soviet and east European societies and political systems were a focus. Later the ESRC supported the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the University of Oxford, launched pioneering accords with Brazil and began close collaboration with the Department of International Development.