Celebrating NatCen Social Research — again — this time at 50

NatCen Social Research is 50 — tonight I head to the House of Lords to celebrate a great organisation’s half century. I worked at NatCen for six and a half years. It was a profoundly enriching experience — I take the learning 0from it everywhere I go. This is what I wrote when I left in December 2012 — every word rings true six and a half years later.

‘I was on the first train from Edinburgh to London this morning and it’s quite a big week ahead. After six and a half years I’m leaving my London based job at NatCen Social Research to look for new opportunities closer to home. So it’s almost the last of more than 500 journeys up and down the East Coast mainline since I started at NatCen in 2006.

It seems an appropriate moment to reflect on doing some memorable work for an inspiring organisation. NatCen Social Research was founded in 1969. And by undertaking first class quantitative and qualitative research for more than 40 years it’s been making a difference to decision making in Britain ever since.

NatCen’s landmark study, the British Social Attitudes survey started in 1983. Two years later in 1985 its ground breaking qualitative research unit was established. Such was the success of the qualitative research unit in embedding qualitative methods in applied social research, it’s since been absorbed back into a larger integrated research function at NatCen. The BSA endures though and is now approaching its 30th anniversary.

Back in the early 1980s I’d just started work in local government. I was a trade union activist campaigning against privatisation and for lesbian and gay rights. I was a young idealist, albeit quite a pragmatic one. I wanted to make the world a better place and social research hadn’t even begun to beckon. I certainly had no sense of its potential to change lives. But nearly 20 years later, by then a full time trade union official, I found myself doing a masters degree in policy research.

It was on that degree course during a qualitative methods module taught by researchers from NatCen that a light got switched on. For the first time I understood how, by understanding the views and experiences of ordinary people’s lives, social research could make a real difference.

Much to my surprise I decided to switch career tracks and six years later in 2006 I joined NatCen as a research director in the qualitative research unit. I hadn’t intended to stay quite so long (not least because of the length of the weekly commute) but one thing led to another and I was lucky enough to be appointed to NatCen’s senior management team at the beginning of 2010.

I’ve been involved in some fantastic research at NatCen on everything from car use and volunteering to birth registration and pensions. The common theme has been social inclusion and I can honestly say that the work has been every bit as much about making the world a better place as anything I did as a trade union official.

At NatCen we believe that social research has the power to make life better. That sounds like a lofty claim, but as my earlier blogs for NatCen argue I’ve absolutely no doubt about the democratic power of social research or indeed its potential to be an honest broker in our search for trust at a moment when other traditions and institutions are floundering.

For me the most powerful piece of research I’ve been involved in at NatCen was a programme of work to shed light on a modern day understanding of Joseph Rowntree’s notion of social evils. Though less immediately connected to policy making than many other studies I’ve led, it was powerful because its core purpose was to elicit voices that might otherwise be unheard in the debate.

Amongst others, those were the voices of young offenders, unemployed people, lone parents and homeless people. It was hugely gratifying that David Utting, in a book arising out of the programme full of wise words from the great and the good said that, with no disrespect to them, the voices we’d elicited were as powerful as anything else the book contained.

Last week saw NatCen’s 2012 staff event and the theme of the day was ‘our work matters’. The key note speaker, the BBC’s Home Editor Mark Easton, generously paid tribute to the work we do and spoke powerfully of the crucial role social research has to play in our democracy. Today’s politicians face decisions as difficult as any in my life time. They need robust evidence to inform those decisions. And policy makers and influencers need it to debate options and potential solutions.

Working at NatCen Social Research has been a privilege. I won’t miss the commute but I’ll miss the organisation and the people. I’m proud to have worked here.’

Chair @SAMHtweets, Non Exec @socsecscot & runner @EdinburghAC, Views my own

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