Will Hutton

Rejection of recommendation for council’s executive chair undermines all of UK research, says Will Hutton


The news that business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has overruled the recommendation of a distinguished appointments board to appoint Jonathan Michie as the executive chair of the Economic and Social Research Council is profoundly disturbing.

According to some sources, Kwarteng was worried about Michie’s previous political leanings, and whether they would have wrongly influenced the kind of research the ESRC funds—notwithstanding Michie’s long track record of academic impartiality. It is a decision with worrying implications not only for the integrity of the selection process, but for the ESRC and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and to a degree for the future of social science in Britain.

The secretary of state is within his rights: the unwritten British constitution confers ministers more executive power than any other democracy—in effect royal prerogative powers now exercised by the monarch’s ministers. That makes it all the more important that ministers exercise their prerogative sparingly and judiciously, otherwise these powers become progressively delegitimised.

So far, no proper public explanation for this decision has been given. The department simply says that no “suitable” candidate could be found and the search will be resumed to establish “a wider range of candidates”.

What seems to be the real explanation has leaked out through anonymous briefings. It is unsatisfactory that a decision with such ramifications and based on prerogative powers requires no further public justification.


In limbo

Kwarteng’s views could not have been shared by an appointment panel made up of Ottoline Leyser, UKRI’s chief executive, John Kingman, UKRI’s founding chair and now chair of Legal and General and Tesco, and the economist and Brexit campaigner Gerard Lyons, ably chaired by Mike Keoghan, a senior official in the department.

The panel could not be accused of any covert left-wing sympathies. We can be certain that they will have made their independent recommendation in good faith and after the comprehensive due diligence that necessarily accompanies such an appointment.

The stated aim of widening the field is not going to be made any easier if candidates believe that the next executive chair of the ESRC must lean to the right. Just as important, who of any standing would want to sit on a selection panel whose views could be disregarded?

The decision puts the ESRC in limbo for many more months, notwithstanding the ability of Alison Park, who has been interim executive chair since February 2021. And the ESRC’s own impartiality has been impugned by the belief that the council’s chair directly commissions research of his or her choosing.

That is not how any publicly funded research council works. Broad priorities are agreed with government, as is entirely right, but the research commissioned is based on wider expert reviews, as is enshrined in the Higher Education Research Act passed while Jo Johnson was the responsible minister.


In the crosshairs

Social sciences, by their definition, can often be found more directly in the crosshairs of governments than the humanities or natural sciences. They bring a range of evidence to bear on economic and social policies, including evaluating the outcomes of policies and interventions.

Even if governments can find this uncomfortable, hitherto they have recognised its necessity. They, and the wider public, depend on impartial social science research and research-based solutions to national problems.

Most social scientists are not driven by ideology but by evidence, and as academics and professionals they properly consider the gamut of economic and social issues to lie in their impartial provenance. It is essential that the ESRC can fund descriptive and evaluative work across a range of national challenges without political fear or favour, and has a chair committed to impartiality and rigour.

The ESRC’s recent successes in funding social science research on Covid, on productivity, on improving education, on environmental policies and behaviours, and in the long-term life-chances relevant to levelling up have rightly been applauded by a diverse audience of policymakers, commentators of all hues, and the wider public.

Setting detailed parameters for what any governing party considers legitimate research has never been the British way. Instead, government works with UKRI to set research themes and priorities, respecting plural, diverse views and above all recognising that research, and its commissioning, must be free to follow the logic of evidence and draw impartial conclusions.

Undermining this principle has crossed an important line. It risks turning the post of ESRC executive chair into a poisoned chalice—diminishing not only the institution and social science but the government’s reputation for funding impartial research through arms-length bodies.


This article first appeared on Research Professional News blog on Feb 10th.


Author biography

Will Hutton is president of the Academy of Social Sciences and writes for the Observer and is co-chair of the Purposeful Company.