How long does it take to have an impact?

The idea that social science should have an impact on society is not unreasonable, if the alternative is abstract expressionism. But how long does it take to make an impact?



In an era of 24/7 news, politicians emulate hedge fund managers in measuring things  in mili-seconds although not milibands. By these standards, the ESRC is being generous
in giving its grantees twelve months after the end of their research before filing an impact statement. However, this is insufficient for sleeper effects to be recognised.

Practically resistant

Maynard Keynes said that the economists who had the biggest impact on contemporary politicians are those who are long dead. This was because practical men who believe themselves exempt from any intellectual influences are resistant to fresh ideas. It took a decade and a world war before Keynes’ ideas began to be applied. Many who deal with the world financial crisis are slow to wake up to the distinction between risk and uncertainty that Frank Knight published in 1921.

I am in the fortunate position of having had an impact on two British prime ministers and not being dead. However, I can’t claim credit for this with the ESRC, because it had not been founded when I co-authored two big impact books, The British General Election of 1959 and Must Labour Lose?

You’ve never had it

Labour’s third straight defeat in 1959 was a shock to the Labour Party and to class- conscious sociologists who theorised that Labour ought to win elections because of its class basis. It was not a shock to the Conservative Party, whose Etonian campaign director approved posters captioned, ‘You’ve never had it so good’ and photos of happy car owners. I wrote the chapters in the Nuffield study documenting how and why this was done.

Must Labour Lose? contained the results of the survey by Mark Abrams that was paid  for by supporters of Hugh Gaitskell. Aneurin Bevan had vetoed the party sponsoring the survey. He placed his hand on the working- class heart that beat beneath his well- tailored suit and proclaimed, ‘I know what the working class thinks’. The key point of the title was the question mark. The text explained that Labour did not have to lose if it would make an effort to understand a changing electorate, for example, workers preferring to shop at Marks & Spencers rather than the Co-op.

Unnatural  acts

To find out why so many of Labour’s natural voters were committing the “unnatural”  act of voting Tory, I turned to market researchers, Mark Abrams and Henry Durant. Both were Labour voters but their message made them unwelcome in party headquarters. Ascetic Fabians thought that cars and home ownership were upper class luxury goods that the working class ought not to want.

The youthful Philip Gould found my Nuffield study opened his eyes to the need to listen to ordinary people if Labour was to win enough of their votes. It took three successive Labour defeats and the death of John Smith before Tony Blair could offer a willing ear to Gould’s message.

Indirect impact

My impact on the Conservative Party was indirect. When William Hague took over the leadership of the Tory Party he distributed copies of Gould’s How I did it book to every shadow Cabinet member with the inscription: ‘Know thine enemy’. Like Labour predecessors in Opposition, uber-Thatcherites resisted the message that elections are won by listening to the electorate. It took the Conservatives three successive election defeats before they started addressing the concerns of voters better described as middle-of-the-road than middle class.

Only after time has passed do many ideas that were initially suppressed have an impact on behaviour. Sixty years ago delayed impact was dubbed ‘the sleeper effect’ by social psychologists. Like climate change, changing the intellectual climate does not normally occur within the time span of a single electoral cycle or ESRC grant.

Wake up

As a democrat, I have never claimed that social scientists have the right to dictate to popularly elected governors. As a political animal, I regret that elected governors take so long to wake up to conclusions that those outside government can see. For example, interning and killing people is not the way  to resolve the problem of Governing without Consensus (1971) and the answer to the question Can Government Go Bankrupt? (1977) is: ‘No, they only get re-financed’. I am still waiting for whoever is elected president of the United States to apply what  I told a predecessor (2007): ‘You can’t defend a state that isn’t there’.

Richard Rose is Director of the Centre for the Study of Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. He bares all in his forthcoming memoir, Learning about Politics in Time and Space, to be published by ECPR Press.