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.

Jobs and growth: Wellbeing at work can be as important as wealth

SSRC and ESRC work on definitions of GDP now embrace ideas of 'wellbeing' and, after the banking crash, have been basic to UK economic policymaking. Lord Layard, a world leader in happiness economics, has been a long-term recipient of ESRC funding. Also important have been the historical perspectives on the UK's comparative advantage from the work of Nick Crafts and others, and the macroeconomic modelling, forecasting and fiscal policy activities of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research and the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Data from studies such as the Workplace and Employment Relations Study (jointly sponsored with government departments) show change over time in management practice and workforce attitudes to the workplace.

Environment: Are controversial 'food miles' necessarily a bad thing?

In the early days 'environment' meant cities, and work on the spread and 'hollowing out' of conurbations and the inner cities by the likes of Sir Peter Hall, who died in 2014. This strand continued with Duncan Maclennan on housing, and the University of York's centre for housing policy, John Muellbauer on housing markets, the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies at Newcastle University, plus extensive studies of urban transport. Later, 'environment' came to imply the sustainability of natural resources. The ESRC's Global Environmental Research programme supported pioneering work showing how important it is to get the economics and sociology of climate change right as well as the physics.

In parallel, major programmes such as Rural Economy and Land Use (co-sponsored with other research councils) looked at farming, forests and food, for example querying 'common sense' around importing foodstuff from across the globe. It found that 'food miles' didn't mean greater environmental impact.

Science and wellbeing: What effect do schools have on their pupils?

Children were a focus under the SSRC, which commissioned studies of the effects of TV and the effectiveness of schooling, informing 15,000 Hours - the groundbreaking 1982 study by Sir Michael Rutter. ESRC work has included collaboration with neuroscientists on learning and early years development, studies of children in care and, based on data from the British Household Panel Study, the costs of child rearing. At the other end of the life course, the ESRC has helped create a large body of work around ageing, pensions, staying in work, personalisation of services, housing adaptation and inter-family relationships.

Society: How your home and school determine your life chances

The SSRC created specialist units to study ethnic minorities and the interaction of the law and society, not just in terms of crime but also of access to justice. An early focus was the 'rediscovery' of poverty in the late 1960s and 1970s through the work of Peter Townsend and David Donnison.

Over the years, the Office of National Statistics and its predecessors have been partners in studies of the birth rate and data from the census. Allowing for the different perspectives of economists and sociologists, we can compute social mobility and know the relative weight of home and school in determining life chances. Another long theme, pursued by the Religion and Society programme, is secularisation, and the persistence and renewal of religious faith.

From our Britain in 2015 magazine

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