Public Release: 

Social scientists contribute to policy in central government

Economic & Social Research Council

According to latest research, social scientists with PhDs working in central government make valuable contributions to policy, and report that holding a PhD can enhance their credibility with senior officials. It also shows that they are more likely to have climbed the career ladder and progressed into leadership roles.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which provides significant support for postgraduate training (PhD) and other schemes, commissioned the research. It was carried out over an eight-month period from October 2011 and was led by Mariell Juhlin, Policy Impact Ltd, and team members Dr Puay Tang, University of Sussex, and Professor Jordi Molas-Gallart, INGENIO.

The study aimed to identify and evaluate the contribution to policymaking made by social scientists working within the Government Economic Service and Government Social Research Service. In particular, it looked closely at the differences in the contributions of people with PhDs and those without, and also at the factors and processes that could enhance or lessen contributions to decision-making.

Thirteen per cent of the social scientists who took part in the study held PhDs, compared with 66 per cent who held masters degrees and 21 per cent who held Bachelor degrees. Sixty-six per cent of respondents with PhDs were in senior positions, compared with 49 per cent of those with Masters degrees and 19 per cent of those Bachelor degrees.

The contribution to decision-making by social scientists with PhDs was widespread - but not always readily visible in policies. Despite this, the study identified examples of advice and recommendations that have been taken up. For example, a senior social scientist working in the Intellectual Property Office played a leading role in the drafting of the Hargreaves Review, which proposed a system to drive economic growth and innovation that is now being implemented by government. Another social scientist based with a regulator applied and consolidated an innovative solution, resulting in a cost-efficient enforcement outcome for scrutiny of company mergers and acquisitions.

Employers, policy clients and social scientists recognise the value of research methodologies learned in doctoral training and how they help in addressing policy issues. But, employers commented that social scientists require an ability to grasp what is needed, deliver pragmatic solutions, and avoid over-emphasis on fine detail to make a difference in a policy setting.

Although a PhD is not a requirement for recruitment to government economic and social research services, PhD holders have an advantage in some skills that are highly valued by employers, such as project management. There was a condition, however, that employees with PhDs should have softer skills, such as being good communicators and networkers to maximise their policy contributions.

Writing reports and briefing notes was undertaken by all groups of social scientists, but the involvement of those with PhDs was found to be more intense. They also undertook other activities, such as project management, research procurement and advisory roles. Many considered that their formal PhD training helps them with the uptake of new methods, evidence from academia and other organisations' research findings.

Social scientists saw themselves as contributing to policymaking at all stages of the policy cycle. But location does make a difference: people working in policy units were more frequently involved in clarifying objectives and the design and implementation of policy, than those working in analysis units.

When policymakers and social scientists worked alongside each other, this was regarded as an important factor in developing trust and collaboration. It was also thought to provide social scientists with a better awareness of the context of policymaking, and to optimise the relevance and timing of their input.


For further information contact:

Margaret Macadam
Telephone 01793 413161

ESRC Press Office:

Jeanine Woolley
Telephone 01793 413119

Melanie Knetsch
Telephone 01793 413049

Notes for editors

1. This release is based on the findings from 'Study of the Contribution of Social Scientists to Government Policy and Practice' and was carried out on behalf of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) by Mariell Juhlin, the MD of Policy Impact Ltd, who led the project. She worked with Dr Puay Tang, Senior Lecturer, Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU), University of Sussex, and Jordi Molas-Gallart, Research Professor at INGENIO, a joint research institute of the Spanish National Council of Scientific Research (CSIC) and the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV).

2. The evaluation report can be found at

3. The study was undertaken between October 2011 and May 2012. It involved a mixed methods approach for the collection and analysis of data - involving both qualitative and quantitative elements. The project included inception interviews with stakeholders, case studies and an online survey.

4. A 'Context-Mechanisms-Outcomes' framework (from Pawson, R. and N. Tilley (1997): "Realistic Evaluation", London, SAGE Publications) for understanding and assessing the contributions of social scientists in government to public policy was used. This entailed making a distinction between the different 'contexts' in which the social scientist PhDs in the Government Economic Service (GES) and the Government Social Research Service (GSR) operate; the 'mechanisms' through which they can affect or are affecting policy and practice in government; and the 'outcomes' or effects of their involvement in policy and practice. All interview guidelines, online questionnaires and case-study structures were devised incorporating these three categories.

5. In total, 16 interviews were held with stakeholders, including the inception phase and as part of case study preparation; four case studies were prepared, involving social scientists with PhDs and their policy clients. The online survey targeted all GES and GSR members in central government, but excluded those working in Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish administrations. There were 653 responses to the survey, representing a response rate of approximately 25 per cent. The gender balance in responses was 50.3 per cent males and 49.7 per cent females.

6. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at

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