Wednesday, 7 December 2011

What Are the ESRC Strategic Priorities for?

In the thick of the back-slapping love-in that was the ESRC Open Meeting last night, I felt a little like Banquo's ghost. I'm not saying that Paul Boyle's murdered anyone recently to be Thane of Swindon, or anything, it's just that I felt a little out of place. Don't get me wrong: I love the ESRC and admire all who sail in her, and I was made to feel very welcome, but I was taken aback by how uncritical the audience seemed to be. The questions were, generally, along the lines of, 'Paul, could I just agree with the previous questioner by saying how brilliant you are?' The toughest questions were saved for government departments (Boo! Hiss!) which, it was generally agreed, weren't pulling their weight in (a) using ESRC-sponsored research, and (b) telling the world how brilliant the ESRC was.

So, like the oik that I am, I waded in with an everso, everso slightly critical question. Feeling a little like a naughty schoolboy before the headmaster, I asked, - em – what did the panel think of Sir Paul Nurse's comments last week, when he took a side swipe at the EPSRC by attacking the concept of funders as 'sponsors'? After all, the ESRC's three 'strategic priorities' seemed to be a move in this direction.

Paul Boyle chortled like an indulgent Dumbledore, 'I certainly wouldn't want to comment on a sister research council,' he began, before explaining how the ESRC was cleverly treading the tightrope between shepherding the sector and giving them the space to do whatever they wanted via their responsive mode schemes.

Well, yes and no. You see, my problem with the ESRC priority areas is that I just don't get the point. For all its faults, the EPSRC is at least putting its money where its mouth is. You may disagree with the policy of 'shaping' its remit, but it's obviously decided what is important, and is now steaming ahead with putting into practice the changes necessary. Their priority areas do, at least, have some value – for better or worse.

The ESRC, on the other hand, has consulted widely, and has produced a 'bottom up' list that is so broad as to be almost meaningless:
  • economic performance and sustainable growth;
  • influencing behaviour and informing interventions;
  • a vibrant and fair society.
Well, that's pretty much the ESRC's remit covered, then.

But what are social scientists meant to make of – or do with – this list? It was made clear that the priorities wouldn’t play a part in responsive mode funding; indeed, at the ESRC Study Day in September Michelle Dodson said that the ESRC would ‘only exceptionally’ provide ‘new investments’ in these areas.

So they don’t want to railroad the sector with the priorities, nor do they want to provide much funding for them. What's left? What are they for, and what will they do? Dodson did say that the priorities would be fulfilled by ‘enhancing impact from existing investments’ and ‘encouraging investments to work together.’

Make of that what you will. Of course, if you don’t like them, you needn’t worry, because there might well be a new set along in due course. Whilst they don’t want to revise them each year they might be (ahem) ‘refreshed annually.’

Okay, so I may joke about these priorities, but I do think there is an important point to make here. There’s been a lot of light and heat generated by these: as Boyle suggested, there was a long consultation process, involving 'taskforces', 'frameworks', 'discussions', and 'comment', to arrive at these fairly anodyne aspirations. The ESRC should now either back the priorities by committing wholeheartedly to them [*shudder*], or, more preferably, drop the pretence at being directive and allow the sector to decide for itself – through the peer review and funding of excellent research – what its priorities are.


  1. I wonder if the fine line they are treading is appearing to be responding to government demands to direct research while not annoying the academics who want to protect peer review and responsive mode funding,

    The SSHRC in Canada has also switched some language to use the term "propriety" and this is causing much confusion for researchers. In this case, the "priority areas" are just renamed strategic funds, some of which were additional money given to SSHRC by the government with specific areas already named. They actually represent separate envelopes of money. However, compared to the budget for the responsive mode grants, they are pretty small envelopes of money. And yet the term "priority" makes researchers believe there is more money for these areas and maybe they should start working in them. Not helpful

  2. Thanks for the report of the meeting, Phil. I had hoped to go to this, but had a prior arrangement for the weekend. I'm surprised to hear that the audience weren't critical - at most of the ESRC events I've attended, at least some of the questions have been quite challenging. Though, to be fair, a large proportion of those can be boiled down to "why isn't there more funding for MY research?" or "why didn't you give my institution a doctoral training centre?"

    My understanding - and it's good to have this confirmed - was that the priority areas don't have a role in responsive mode. But they do have a role in Centres/Large Grants and Prof Fellowships calls, and may also shape some targeted calls as they did with the 'Rising Powers' scheme. Granted, we haven't see many of those recently, but we may in the future, especially if the ESRC can get hold of co-funding for some of them.