Government policy and the direction of social science research.
Using the UK Social Science Research Council (SSRC)lEconomic and Social Research
Council (ESRC)l as a case study, this thesis tests the hypothesis that government funding of
social science research has altered research directions. Academics often assume a causal link
between government policy, ESRC-funded research and research directions but no adequate
evidence has been presented to support this claim. As a senior ESRC figure puts it, 'Most of
the people who say these things, even though they are social scientists, speak without looking
at very simple .... evidence that's publicly available.' This research examines this evidence in
detail and draws upon extensive interviews with ESRC figures.
Various governments have viewed social science as either the equivalent of, or
inferior to, natural science. The ESRC has been caught in the middle of this conceptual and
ideological battle. An understanding of the history of social science in the UK Research
Council system, and of the development of the disciplines of sociology and economics in
particular, is crucial in revealing how the Left and Right have confronted the idea of a
'science of society' and the impact, if any, upon social science research via the ESRC.
This thesis concludes that there is no evidence that government policy has
deliberately been filtered through the ESRC in order to direct the social science research
effort. There have, however, been indirect consequences of government funding social
SCIence through the Research Council system. An ex-ESRC Secretary explains that
governments do not understand what social science is so they support 'social science that
makes sense to natural scientists', which is 'social science in the service of natural science
and technology'. Through fear of budget cuts the ESRC never sought to correct this image
and has more recently strategically promoted this brand of social science to its advantage.
This has led to a picture of the ESRC as positivistic and directive but, as an ex-committee
secretary says, this is 'more apparent than real'. A closer examination of the ESRC's
relationships with government, its research priorities and the secretariat's dealings with
academics reveals a very different day-to-day picture.