Meet the SRA Trustees: Judith Hanna

Judith Hanna is Social Science Principal Scientist at Natural England.

How did you know that social research was the career for you?

I think I rather fell into it rather than aiming for it. I did a social science degree in ethnography and sociolinguistics in Australia followed by a fairly random trajectory through a variety of environmental and community relations focused organisations. You could say that I am more of a social research user than researcher per se.


Where do you work at present?

At Natural England – the government agency responsible for the natural environment. I lead a small social science group within a larger Science, Evidence and Analysis team who are mainly ecologists and other natural scientists. Our current challenge is to integrate social science as a key element in developing an interdisciplinary evidence programme. Issues include community participation and building up the evidence on how natural environments provide a basis for human well-being, both physical and psychological – from basic survival through to cultural appreciation and sense of place.
And previously ?

I worked at drawing up pioneering ‘equal opportunities in public employment’ plans for the prisons and justice department in New South Wales.  I came over here and worked at CND during the height of the peace movement, then in 1987 I moved to be Assistant Director at what is now the Campaign for Better Transport taking a particular interest in local street environments. After a spell as a transport and land use journalist I moved to the Commission for Racial Equality as an in-house writer and editor, then moved to what is now Volunteering England as Head of Policy. Alongside these jobs I have worked with and chaired the New Economics Foundation and Permaculture Association Britain. I also remain involved with community environmental action in Tottenham where I live.
What has been your greatest social research related achievement?

We have just completed an internal social science review to clarify the social evidence priorities of Natural England This involved extensive interviewing across Natural England and proved to be well worth it – not just for the information it provided but also for the process of active engagement in encouraging colleagues who don’t normally think about social science to articulate why it matters for their environmentally focused work. The review has been warmly welcomed and is now being implemented. Related to this I am also involved in developing a collaborative network with social research colleagues in our sponsor department – DEFRA and our sister agencies under its aegis.

Who is your social research hero/heroine?

Elinor Ostrom for winning an economics Nobel prize on her social science principles for community management of natural resources. Also Mary Douglas for a range of useful conceptual frameworks, Jacquie Burgess for her work on people and local environments and the ever provocative Mayer Hillman.
What is your earliest memory of the SRA?

Going along to an evening seminar soon after I switched to a social science role. I needed to find out how to be a good social scientist and researcher!
Why did you become actively involved and join the board?

Joining the board seemed like a good way to find out how the social research field operates, the things that matter for quality and standards and the inside story on all of the who and how.

What is your role on the board?

I am currently Board Secretary and Company Secretary. The first of these comes down to taking clear minutes and planning discussions/agendas. The Company Secretary role is a legal responsibility to ensure that annual accounts and registration of directors (trustees) are filed with Companies House and the Charity Commission. I am now the trustee with the longest continuity – bridging a vital stretch of corporate memory.
What do you enjoy about your involvement with the SRA, anything you would prefer to avoid?

I particularly enjoy being involved in how social research is developing, emerging topics and debates, key players and knowing about what new work is making waves. Hmm – I don’t actually enjoy business meetings or taking minutes (I’m deaf) or sitting at computers. But the SRA is full of nice people.
Which of the SRA plans are you particularly excited about?

The new Public Affairs initiative that Ceridwen Roberts and Barbara Doig are steering through should enable us to develop a clearer voice championing the importance of social research evidence as a basis for steering policies that work towards making a better society for people to live in. The website redesign will make it easier to use in an interactive way. And for those of us who have been anxiously steering the SRA through the period post the 2008 cuts, the confirmation from our sterling treasurer, Graham Hughes, that the SRA seems to have emerged on a financially stable keel is a huge relief.
Looking forward – where would you like to see social research being in 5 years time?

The ONS wellbeing index needs to help us to really pin down the ways in which the environments in which people live affect their well-being. Also, a wider recognition, particularly in the Treasury, of the importance of qualitative and narrative evidence (alongside quantitative evidence) about why and how people behave and what they really value.
And the SRA in 5 years time?

A  library of public affairs position documents on the website as an off the shelf resource that can be used by those working in the field and also by Government Departments and funders to understand the importance of social science evidence.

Interview by Gillian Smith

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My career: Lee Smith

Lee is Head of Strategic and Policy Research at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.  He is also the department’s Head of Profession for social research on the Government Social Research (GSR) board.

As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?

A crime fighter… of some sort.  Initially I wanted to be a lawyer.  Then I selected my A Level subjects on the basis I wanted to be a forensic scientist.  Then I became hooked on the TV series Cracker and wanted to be a forensic psychologist.  In reality the closest I got was a short time on the British Crime Survey.

When did you first turn towards a social research career?

For me, there was no single Eureka! moment.  Instead, there have been a number of choices along the way that have resulted in my career in social research.  I would probably go as far back as my final year undergraduate psychology research dissertation at the University of Nottingham.  My project investigated the hazard perception abilities of novice and experienced drivers.  Though behavioural rather than social research, this experience gave me an appetite for research with a real world application.  It also gave me relevant experience to get my first job as a researcher at the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in Berkshire.  It was there that I developed a keen interest in survey research and the potential of social research evidence to inform social issues.

What was your first professional job?  And first project there?

I think one of my first, significant pieces of work was a study to monitor and evaluate the Department for Transport’s Drink-Drive Rehabilitation Scheme (DDRS).  This research took a multi-method approach to explore a wide range of issues relating to the operation of the scheme and its use by courts, offenders and improvement course providers to identify good practice and potential improvements.  It also evaluated the impact of scheme attendance on re-offending rates.

What has been your best professional moment?

While leading the social impacts, fairness and well-being research programme at the Department for Transport, I was responsible for publishing guidance on how to measure the social and distributional impacts of Local Authorities’ major transport schemes.  This guidance was based on a five year programme of social research and advocated the use of analytical techniques including social research methods to measure such impacts.

In 2011, more than 40 schemes were submitted against a £1.5bn investment fund.  This was the first time that the guidance had been formally used.  As a result of the guidance each scheme’s business case included a consistent and proportionate analysis of both potential social impacts arising from the scheme and the fairness of any distribution of identified impacts across social groups within the local population. 

My assessment of the social and distributional impact analysis provided within each business case was presented to ministers alongside more traditional economic measures e.g. scheme value for money.  Working with other analytical disciplines to identify the best ways to incorporate the analysis of social impacts alongside measures of economic impact and to see the influence of my assessment of social impacts on ministerial decision making was a definite highlight.

…and worst?

There isn’t a single worst moment, but anyone who has worked for senior colleagues who do not apparently value the contribution of social research in the policy making process will understand that this can represent a difficult environment to work in.  That said, such times provide a valuable opportunity to challenge ourselves as social research specialists and to consider how we can best communicate the added value of social research and demonstrate its impact in ways that better resonate with a sceptical audience.

Do you have a social research hero/heroine?

Not as such.  But I have a huge sense of gratitude and respect for the many colleagues in my career to date  who have made a contribution, however large or small (and whether they realised or not!) that has inspired, helped and encouraged me to develop my knowledge, understanding and skills.  Such individuals have helped me realise the importance of role modelling and mentoring within the social research community and left me with a hope that I too can support others in their development.

Do you have a favourite quote?

“Lies, damned lies and statistics”, which I believe was originally made popular by Mark Twain.  It reminds me of the power of evidence and the ease with which it can be misused and misrepresented. As someone designing and disseminating social research with a policy focus, the quote reminds me of the importance of ensuring our own research is robust and fit for purpose so that the results are reliable even if others’ reporting of them is not.  It reminds me too of the importance of acting with integrity in our own handling and reporting of evidence, whilst trying to ensure that the evidence we produce addresses the real interests of its intended audience and has something to say in its own right and without spin.  There are so many factors that will limit our ability to do both in every situation, but it’s a useful prompt to me.

What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?

It is at times like these that reliable, robust and outcome-focused evidence is most needed to inform the decisions that affect us all.  Seeing your work inform those decisions is hugely rewarding!

Meet the SRA Trustees – Patten Smith

In this interview Patten Smith, Chair of the SRA Board of Trustees explains why he became involved with the SRA and outlines plans for the future.

Professional summary 

How did you know that social research was the career for you?

After my first degree in Experimental Psychology I did an MSc in social psychology at the LSE.  The course was very broad and addressed a range of social issues as well as happily straying into other disciplines.  Afterwards I was offered a research assistant job – coupled with a PhD  on a Home Office funded project on alienation in young men run by George Gaskell.   This gave me the taste for rigorous research on social issues. 

Where do you work at the moment?

Ipsos MORI where I head the Research Methods Centre (RMC).  We provide methodological and analytic input to surveys across the UK company.

And previously?

My  main employers were NatCen (when it was called SCPR) and TNS BMRB (when it was called BMRB!)

Who is your social research hero/heroine?

I don’t really have heroes!   But if I can reframe the question as being about mentors and influences it becomes easier to answer.  I learnt a good deal about the craft of social research from the cohort of senior directors who were at SCPR when I joined in 1986 – especially Barry Hedges, Douglas Wood and Gill Courtenay.   But to these I should add as an influence the great Roger Jowell who founded and directed SCPR at the time I was there.  Roger had very clear ideas about what social research is for and how it should be conducted, ideas which underpinned both SCPR’s work and the SRA’s founding principles.  I shared these ideas then and continue to do so now. 

SRA things

How did you first hear about the SRA?

Probably from going to evening seminars in 1986. They were very instructive – so much so that we have reinstated them. 

When did you become involved with the SRA – why did you join the Board?

I’ve had low-level involvement over the years, mainly in providing training.  But I have to confess that joining the Board had not occurred to me until it was suggested by an SRA colleague.  But when it was suggested I realised that this was exactly the right thing to do.  As I mentioned above I have firm ideas about why social research is important and how it should be practised, and the SRA gives me a platform from which to preach! 

Which of the SRA plans are you particularly excited about?

We have recently been developing a new strategic plan for the SRA – applying our core values to the ever-changing research environment.

And we are also looking into the idea of putting together a journal devoted to UK relevant social research.  Because much of social research is conducted outside Academe we don’t have an obvious place to publish the kind of work we do.  This would aim to remedy this situation

Looking forward – where would you like to see social research and the SRA being in 5 years time?

Social research: (i) consistently high quality standards across the board but using methods that embrace new technologies; and (ii) greater, more considered and critical use of the evidence we provide by policy makers.   

SRA: playing a major role in making these things happen.

Miscellaneous getting-to-know you

What do you do in your spare time? 

I am involved in a wide variety of family activities (my children range in age from 4 to 21).  And reading (a range of genres and subjects) and photography (both digital and old-school dark-room based).

Anything else?

I think most of the things people don’t know about me should stay unknown – that leaves open the possibility that they are interesting!

My career: Alison Park

Alison Park is Head of the Society and Social Change Team at NatCen Social Research.

What was your childhood ambition?

My home was very literary: my dad was an academic, my mum worked in publishing.  So perhaps unsurprisingly my earliest vision of a dream job was to be an author.

When did you turn to social research?

I discovered Sociology at A level and really enjoyed it – getting to understand what society really looked like, how it worked and recognising that there are different ways of thinking about the social world. So I took a Social Science degree at what was then Bristol Poly (now UWE). On the side while a student I got involved in various market research projects, the most (sadly) memorable being one that involved standing for hours in Stroud and Gloucester shopping centres trying to persuade people to tell me about what newspapers they read. Then I did an M.Phil. in Sociology at Nuffield College, Oxfordwhere for my dissertation I analysed and wrote up data from a survey of academic careers being overseen by A H Halsey. I focused on the experience of female academics and their career progression, which was really interesting as well as good practice when it came to doing social research analysis. By then I was pretty clear that I wanted to work in research.

What was your first job?

I went to NatCen (then known as Social and Community Planning Research, or SCPR) as a junior researcher, assisting on a range of projects, mainly to do with housing. In the mid 1990s I first got involved with the British Social Attitudes Survey, an annual study that began in 1983.  It had, and still has, everything I like about social research – interesting topics, rigorous data collection and analysis, a commitment to report the results accessibly, and good media coverage.  I have been involved with it ever since.

Your best professional moment?

Perhaps not necessarily the best, but the most challenging professional moment was when, for the 2001 national election, I appeared on the BBC Election Night panel, alongside Anthony King and Andrew Marr with David Dimbleby chairing.  They were all seasoned veterans. For me, as a novice, it was both terrifying and exciting, aware that it was going out live (no opportunity for second thoughts or redrafts!). It was also a brilliant insight into what underpins that level of detailed news coverage: so much time! so many staff! such expense!

…and worst?

I suspect I have blanked the worst from my memory. But one of my first jobs at NatCen was working on a dictionary of housing terms.  My spelling of ‘mortgage’ and ‘accommodation’ was found seriously wanting (this was the days before spell checkers)

Do you have a social hero/heroine?

It has to be Roger Jowell who sadly died at the end of last year. Having pursued my career at NatCen he was a strong influence on me and a dear friend.  He was forward thinking, charismatic, caring. He leaves behind a great legacy, not just NatCen itself but also the British Attitudes Survey and the more recent European Social Survey.

A favourite quote?

I believe that there is great value in comparative research for illuminating what is unique in particular contexts. So I like Marshall McLuhan’s saying: ‘We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.’ Think about it!

What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?

Go for it!  At its best it is fulfilling, creative, practical – and it develops your ability with words and numbers. But it can be frustrating when you feel that you are not having an impact and your work vanishes without trace.  You must work at this as a necessary research skill.

Interview by William Solesbury

Meet the SRA Trustees – Jennifer Evans

How did you know that social research was the career for you?

I think it is one of those things that was just meant to be! I remember doing ‘projects’ when I was younger (including some very important research about chocolate) and in one of my first jobs was as a claims advisor in an insurance company where I asked if I could carry out an evaluation of the efficiency of internal work policy and processes.

Where do you work at the moment?

At the Business School inCardiffUniversityin the Research Office.  I work with academics to develop research funding applications and support the strategic development of research activity across the School.

 And previously?

Most of my career has been spent working in the Welsh Government in its various guises. I’ve worked as a funding and research manager in economics, health & social care and corporate research. I also spent two and a half years working in the voluntary sector, coordinating aWaleswide health and social care research network. Much more on the research administration side, rather than as an actual researcher which has its frustrations, but I have to say I have loved all my jobs.

What has been your greatest achievement in your social research career?

Whilst working for the Welsh Government I set up and ran a new grants programme for Wales. Although there had been previous schemes, there hadn’t been a funding call for a number of years, so it was a highly anticipated scheme and had a huge response of nearly 200 applications. I set up an internal review process, an external peer review and an academic review panel, and from the successful applications, was able to very neatly profile £1million of funding over three years – all within 12 months!

Who is your social research hero/heroine?

There are so many! I have been inspired by a lot of people though I would have to say Richard Thurston, head of research in education and skills in the Welsh Government. He was the one who took me to one side and made me realise that I wanted a research career and advised me what to do. He was also the driving force behind establishing research and evaluation within the Welsh Assembly Government (as was). And as well as being hugely influential inWales, he is also a really lovely chap!

How did you hear about the SRA?

Early in 2002/03 I became aware of the potential value in linking to the SRA. At the time there was limited capacity to do very much in Wales, but eventually, in 2006 SRA Cymru was launched and I was invited to chair a parallel session on data about Wales. There has always been a strong sense of community between researchers inWales, so I’m proud to have been part of it at the start, and hope that I can help support that community as part of the UK Board.

What motivated you to join the SRA board?

I was invited to join the SRA Cymru Organising Committee in 2006 when I worked in the voluntary sector. I jumped at the chance as it was a great opportunity to develop links between my network and a wider research community. In 2011 I started working atCardiffUniversityand I put myself forward as a potential co-Chair of the branch inWales(and therefore UK Board member) because I could see that there was huge potential to strengthen links with academia.

What do you enjoy about your involvement with SRA? Are there any bits you prefer to avoid?

I really love meeting new people and finding out about all the different research that is happening all over the place. The only frustration I have is from how much I want to try and achieve as part of the organisation and how everything takes time. 30 hour days and 10 day weeks would help a lot!

Which of the SRA plans are you particularly excited about?

Everything!  I do have a particular vision of how the SRA presence inWaleswill develop, and I really hope that over the next couple of years people will look forward, talk about and want to be part of what we are doing.

What are the key challenges facing the SRA over the next few years?

As a membership organisation, in difficult financial times we are vulnerable to a variable funding situation. My hope is that people will see personal value of being part of the organisation, not just because of any particular employment role they have, but because they value the opportunities available for their career more generally.

And where would you like to see the SRA being in 5 years time?

I would love for the Social Research Association to be seen as the place for individuals to turn to when they want an independent perspective on social research issues, whether it be about the quality of research in the media, to know what the important issues within the profession are, or simply for finding some like-minded people.

Getting personal

 Where was your last holiday?

My husband and I went to New York for our wedding anniversary earlier this year. I’d never been before and was very excited to see the sights – and eat a giant pretzel! We went to 11 Madison Ave, one of the top restaurants in the World. They knew we were celebrating our anniversary and invited us into the kitchen where they made delicious cherry brandy cocktail using liquid nitrogen. I’d never seen it before in real life and luckily managed to resist the temptation to dip my finger in!

What do you do in your spare time?

I love keeping fit – it helps me justify eating a lot of flapjacks and scones – and having done a few 10k races and half marathons, last year I tried out triathlon. I managed to finish a half iron distance in July 2011 (total of 73 miles covered between swimming, cycling and running), which introduced me to a love of swimming in the river (!) as well as making me realise how much I enjoy running. I now have my sights on a marathon in November which I am very much looking forward to.

Interview by Gillian Smith

My career: Graham Crow

MY CAREER: GRAHAM CROW

Graham Crow is Professor of Sociology and Deputy Director of the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods at the University of Southampton.

 As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?

I don’t think I ever imagined I’d end up as a Professor!  My parents wanted me to do something different to what they had done: my father worked on a farm and we all knew what a low-paid, long-hours job that was, while my mother had a succession of part-time jobs in shops and offices. I was very lucky in the teachers I had, and perhaps they acted as sorts of role models.  Like many people of my generation , I was the first person in my family to go to University.

When did you first turn towards a social research career?

It wasn’t until quite late on as an undergraduate in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University that I realised that the things I was reading about in books and journals were the products of research to which new generations of researchers would be needed to add, and that I might be among those researchers. Unlike to-day’s undergraduates, I didn’t have a single lecture on research methods, so going on to postgraduate research at Essex University was a bit of a shot in the dark. I don’t think the people supervising me thought I had a natural talent; I still remember one of them saying that something I’d written about doing research was “worthy but dull”! But I loved interviewing people and then analysing and talking about findings, and I guess that over time I learned how to make the subject less dull.

What was your first professional job?

I got my first full-time job lecturing in 1983 at Southampton University when I was still writing up my PhD, and had to learn to be quite flexible about what I taught and to whom. Teaching social science to medical students was a challenge, but worth persevering with, because they kept me on my toes. I also taught on a whole range of other courses, including some on historical and comparative sociology where I learned about subjects as diverse as the Indian Caste system and the diversity of state socialism (this was still pre-1989).

And first project?

This involved looking at the history of housing and the changing meaning of ‘home’. At first this led me to the analysis of historical documents, but then I focused on contemporary relations between neighbours, and what Peter Willmott referred to as the ‘friendly distance’ that exists between people who live next door to each other, being supportive while at the same time seeking to preserve privacy.  We also found, as other researchers have, that people will be more forthcoming to interviewers about what they do for other people than they will be about what other people do for them, because nobody wants to appear dependent or beholden, and this issue of how to deal with what people say they do not always squaring with what people actually do has stayed with me as a core methodological puzzle.

What has been your best professional moment?

I’m always pleased when one of my research students is awarded their degree and proud of my part in that. Also running some of the ESRC’s Research Methods Festivals , and when they have gone well that has produced a real buzz –  it’s no easy task keeping 800 social researchers happy!

 …and worst?

There would be several contenders for the worst professional moment. Most of these involve disappointment – sometimes my own, but more often someone else’s. I’m not as good as I should be when telling people that their work is not up to scratch, especially when they have been expecting a more favourable verdict. 

Do you have a social research hero/heroine?

Ann Oakley, because she asks such interesting questions across a range of topics and writes about them accessibly and with commitment.

Do you have a favourite quote?

I do like Marx’s ‘Doubt everything’. One of the courses I teach has ‘How do we know that?’ as a recurrent theme.

What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?

There will always be a need for good social researchers, although their career will involve clashing swords with people who have vested interests in particular answers being produced.

 

Interview by William Solesbury

 

 

 

 

My career: Matt Baumann

Matt Baumann is currently an independent researcher and evaluator

 

As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?

For quite a while, I had two professions in mind. My first choice was to work on an oil rig, my second was to be a cowboy. I understood that there was lots of money in oil, and I was certain that cowboys had lots of fun. But I wasn’t happy with having to choose between money and fun and so when I heard about social research I was delighted.

When did you first turn towards a social research career?

After finishing a degree in history and politics in 1993 my first job was working in a telephone fundraising company. Initially I worked on campaign administration and making direct fundraising calls, and then I got involved in some customer care projects which involved interviewing charity supporters about their values, views and opinions. It was then that I caught the research bug. I went from here to get some training with NatCen (then SCPR) and worked on the British Citizenship Survey interviewing people in their own homes.

What was your first professional job? And first project there?

My first ‘proper’ research job in 1996 was as a research officer for Dorset Social Services (Dorset being where I grew up). My first project was a survey of parents’ experiences of day-care provision. It was a great introduction to running a random sample survey. Dorset County Council kindly sponsored me to study part time for a masters’ degree in social research methods and statistics at City University – affording me the chance to learn the theory and practice of research alongside one another.

And after that?

I stayed in Dorset for 3-4 years and completed several studies for Department in adult and children’s services. I then moved to London to take up a job at Newham Social Services. Then in 2000 I started at what is now the Department for Communities Local Government working on the development and implementation of the £1.5bn Supporting People programme. The central government role was a very different experience to my previous roles, mainly because I was now a research buyer rather than a hands-on researcher, but also because the work was around policy implementation, and what I bought tended to be ‘information based outputs’ to support development and delivery of the new programme rather than social science research. I enjoyed working with the policy team – and it was an interesting diversion from social science.

What has been your best professional moment?

My years at Dorset would be a strong candidate for a ‘best professional moment’ – the value base was strong, there was variety in what we investigated and the research team was well integrated into the strategy and policy function whilst managing to maintain well its own boundaries.

However, I think my actual BPM was getting my first academic publication. There is something about knowing your research builds on and contributes to ‘the literature’ on a topic. My first article was published in 2008 and it set out the findings of a study of good practice in six sites where hospital discharge delays had been minimised (the project was aptly titled ‘what went right?’).

For the large part of the past six years I’ve been self-employed. I’ve worked on a number of health and wellbeing focused programmes and service evaluations including studies for NHS organisations, the Arts Council, Youth Music and I’ve most recently worked for NESTA on its People Powered Health Programme.

I am currently drafting three articles on the findings of three arts and health initiatives that I evaluated during 2007-10. Managing to complete this research to an academic standard outside of an academic environment, and getting some more articles published will be my next BPM.

Do you have a social research hero/heroine?

Kevin Bales has spent the past 15 or more years researching and leading action on modern day slavery and his research (written up in numerous books such as the award winning Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy and Ending Slavery: How we free today’s slaves) has made a huge impact on the way individuals and global institutions perceive and act with respect to human trafficking and slavery. The number of international awards, recognitions and honours he has received is awe inspiring. I would have to say then that he and his former partner, my sister Ginny with whom he established the charitable organisation Free the Slaves around 10 years ago, are my social research heroes/heroines.

What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?

I think it’s a difficult climate in which to enter a social research career but the world is changing so fast and the need for intelligent people who will vigilantly and passionately seek to understand society as it changes, and to support powerful institutions to develop supportive and enabling communities and service infrastructures, remains just as important as it has ever been.

Interview by William Solesbury