ESRC’s Effort to Develop Leadership in the Social Sciences: A Hunt for Unicorns?


Surely preparing Britain’s social science community to take the lead in a future of global and interdisciplinary team research isn’t a quest for a mythical beast? Matt Flinders, who heads an ESRC project trying to nurture that leadership, doesn’t think so – but he understands why someone might think it is.

Matt Flinders lays out his perspective bluntly: “I don’t consider myself an academic.” While this is, on the surface, merely a statement of personal preference for a practicing political scientist at the University of Sheffield, one who is the director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. But it’s an important clue as to how Flinders approaches a current high-profile project, a national consultation for Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council focused on developing leadership within the social sciences.

The consultation is part of the research council’s larger “Fit for the Future Project,” which aims to nurture skills within the social science community that are needed to work on “large, complex ‘team-science’ projects” that are attempting to address the so-called wicked problems of today.

“This leadership challenge,” according to the ESRC, “has implications for how the social sciences think about researcher development more generally; how it nurtures and sustains intellectual curiosity and creativity throughout the full professional journey; how it cultivates and rewards ambassadors for the social sciences and how it might combine a fresh approach to talent management and building research leadership capacity with United Kingdom Research and Innovation commitments in relation to inclusion, diversity and equality.”

Matt Flinders

As you might expect by combining his statement with his CV, Flinders approaches this consultation as both a practiced insider and a proud outsider, giving him a unique perspective on the stated issues, the real issues, the challenges that have made them issues, and maybe even the odd solution.

Flinders first bid adieu to formal education in his mid-teens, entering the Army at age 15 with one academic qualification – in cookery (“Food and nutrition, I like to call it. It sounds better”). “So basically, I went into the army, that was pretty tough, taught me a lot about real life. And then I had to attend night school to work my way back up through the system.

“That genesis is really interesting for how I now view the academic world. I think in many ways, one of the challenges for academia is too few academics have experienced working in non-academic environments. If they did, their view on academia, its role and their place within it, would be very different.”

As a first step after he was named an ESRC Leadership Fellow last year with responsibility for this consultation, Flinders penned a seven-page paper (PDF here) that lays out four research questions, such as “What does the current capacity framework look like and where are the gaps in provision?” and “Is there evidence of disciplines beyond the social sciences innovating in this space?” It follows that with four propositions that drive home the need to catalyze change throughout the research endeavor and at all career levels.

The paper closes with a call to action, asking the social science community to engage with the ‘Fit’ project by addressing some key open questions – Is the preliminary work on target or wide of the mark? Would creating a national framework around these issues be boon or a bane? Assuming action is needed, what’s the priority, and what body or bodies should take the lead? Starting in September, Flinders will visit institutions around Britain to discuss and debate the state of social science leadership and the project he heads (schedule here).

Social Science Space phoned Flinders to ask about this quest for leadership, which he acknowledged could be seen as “hunting for unicorns.”

“I can understand that,” he said. “But again, I’m not saying is that we need to find the heroic man or woman who has every possible skill and expertise. It’s not about that. It’s more basic, it’s about a future of research leadership, about building teams, and managing teams, and identifying talent, so that different people take on different leadership roles within the team. So it really is about collaborative leadership, with an element of research leadership.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could tell me a little bit about your trajectory that led you to take on this project?

I suppose I’m slightly a rare species of academic in the sense that I have a lot of experience leading projects beyond academia. So I’ve worked with a number of government departments and parliaments around the world. I also was on the board of an acute mental health trust for three years. So in a sense, I think that that broader understanding of project management and leadership beyond academe was really useful.

Also, I was chair for three years of the Political Studies Association, the second largest learned society for political science in the world. I took over the learned society at a particular moment when it was fairly clear that the landscape was changing, not just in terms of research funding, but in terms of the whole nature of higher education. The notion of professionalism, the notion of careers, the challenges facing different people at different points — and the role of learned societies. Learned societies had had a fairly, I suppose the word would be ‘crusty,’ existence. They were very much tied to what I might see as the old traditional model of academe. It was a time to supercharge things, to build structure and foundations, to allow it to serve the modern needs rather than the past.

I was able to build a team — and I think the whole focus of leadership that we’re looking at is around teams and collaboration, not individuals — and together we managed to, I think, transform the governance and reputation of the learned society. But I think more broadly, it was recognized beyond the discipline across the social sciences and humanities, and became something of a sort of an exemplar. It’s not rocket science; one of the things I did was empower the members. I set up these kind of like presidential task forces, where I said to the members, ‘OK, we’ve got these major challenges, it’s not for the learned society to tell you what we’re going to do, it’s for the members to tell the learned society what it needs.’ … What I found was that if you created structures where people really believe something potentially positive was happening, you could ignite that spirit.

The beginning of the consultation or paper talks about why this project has come about. But there’s a bigger issue, and I think ‘crustiness’ is probably part of the answer. Why do we need to have a special project for something so blindingly obvious?

All large organizations, particularly in the public sector, tend to be what are often called ‘clunky’ organizations. There’s a whole subfield of political science public administration that looks at stickiness, historical path dependency, the role of cultures. One of the great tensions in academia is a very important cultural dimension, which is about protecting intellectual autonomy, and freedom from external interference, and a fear of co-option or the contamination of your research.

Although all parts of the public sector are prone to a certain worldview that can be very hard to shift, I think within academe — for quite warranted reasons — that could be more problematic. It’s an even stickier profession to work within. And then there’s an intellectual dimension to this: academia is a fairly hierarchical profession. It’s run by senior professors who have built their career and established themselves on a particular model of academia. So when external actors or reviews start to suggest that there is a need to prod and poke and push that worldview, they’re unlikely to embrace it with open arms (or they need some convincing).

C Wright Mills
C.Wright Mills …

What’s interesting is that there’s a really strong generational shift at play here. … If you look particularly at new professors, mid-career academics, and definitely the younger generations, there is a real positive cultural dynamic to play a more agile, engaged, responsive role to do what I call an engaged scholarship. My own work takes a lot of inspiration from C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination — the trap and the promise. In many ways, my sense is that the social sciences (along with other disciplines, but that’s where I’m working) has fallen into a bit of a trap of its own making. And that is exactly the trap that you alluded to, why is something that’s blindingly obvious have to be the focus of such a big review. And that’s because for several decades now, social sciences involve largely in one direction. And now it’s been asked encouraged incentivized, to not move from one to another, but to, as it were, speak to multiple audiences in multiple ways.

Including the public outside of the academy?

The interesting issue here is a cultural dynamic that sees the current push towards demonstrating relevance, impact, public value, which is almost in tension with academic standards and scholarship. If you engage with the public, you’re almost seen as not a real scholar.

My argument has always been that taking my academic research into the broader public arenas allows me to deliver research of a far higher quality because it is stress-tested in ways that will never be done within academia. It also opens up new opportunities, new avenues, new sources of funding to sustain my research. So there’s a sort of virtuous cycle to working both within and beyond academe.

There are risks. That is the sort of argument we’ve got to get across. Nowadays, I don’t talk about the research community, or scholars really, I’m more interested in the notion of the ‘knowledge ecosystem.’ Now, that sounds a little bit wishy-washy. What I mean by that is that there are lots of people doing research, there are a lot of social scientists based beyond academe. There are lots of public and community groups with high levels of expertise. And the knowledge ecosystem is all about how do we find ways of utilizing different forms of knowledge, different forms of expertise, to really get a deeper and well more well-rounded understanding of societal challenges. But that demands that people are better in terms of taking ideas to different contexts. We’ve got to get better at facilitating the mobility of ideas and people. And in many ways, that’s what this leadership is about.

I want to go back to a point that you made earlier, the idea that you’re working with younger people and trying to inculcate them at an earlier stage. Does that suggest, in a sense, that you’re giving up on some of the silverbacks?

‘Giving up’ is obviously not the way I would phrase it. What we’re actually doing is quite different. I don’t want the word of the interview to be ‘crusty,’ but maybe it’s going to happen. One of the great cultural issues of higher education is that it has still a culture of gentlemanly amateurism. And that gentlemanly amateurism is often protected by more sophisticated arguments about autonomy and independence. But where it has arguably held things back is that it has prevented higher education, from putting in place the infrastructure that would allow it to keep pace with societal demands.

Now, that’s an interesting dynamic, where I think the UK might be starting to lead the field. Coming out from UK right now is a twin emphasis not just about, ‘How do we fund more research?’ In fact, you might say, it’s about how do we fund less research, but have a higher quality that has more of a demonstrable social impact?

Part of that shift is a move towards thinking more seriously, and strategically, about research infrastructure. What are the foundations that you need to allow scholars to do their very best work. In the past, that’s what the evidence review shows: as scholars we just get on with it. You’re appointed to a lectureship, off you go. The big cliff edge is when you’re appointed to be full professor — suddenly, you’re given responsibilities and expectations in a culture that is incredibly competitive. And it’s often quite masculine in a sense that we’re all very poor at admitting when we need help.

Where we get to the silverbacks is that the consultation is heading towards is a framework that supports the full professional journey. There’s obviously a certain self selection of the people that are talking to me, but one thing I’ve been very surprised that is that so far, I’ve not had one full professor that’s come to me to speak about the work I’m doing that hasn’t said to me, ‘Fantastic — I would love more support. It doesn’t mean I want more chalk and talk. I don’t want more online courses to have to tick off. But some support mentoring, one-on-one coaching, opportunities to experience different contexts and environments.’ The professoriate are really relieved someone’s talking about these issues.

At the moment, 99 percent of all the support for thinking about career development and research leadership is bolted on in a fairly haphazard way to the beginning of the career structure. Where the big issue is, it seems to me to be the mid-career scholars who for one reason or another, their research careers have stalled. Now, that might be because they’ve got family responsibilities and don’t have the time, which is a big issue, it might be that they’ve put in some big grant application haven’t come off, it might be quite honestly, that they’re bored, they spent 25 years becoming the world expert in something and they just want to do something fresh. But the structures aren’t very good, allowing people to shift out. This is the path dependencies that we spoke about. They’re very rigid. So once you get known and reputation in a certain resource profile, it’s very, very hard to open up a completely new terrain that might really fire up your imagination and passion for research. The flip side of this here in the UK is that once you leave academia, it’s very, very hard, if not impossible to get back in.

So one of the things that I’m really interested in, are how do we create new entry and exit points? And how do we provide opportunities to reboot careers for mid careers? I like to think that this isn’t undoable. Take, for example, the Wellcome Trust: they have just introduced research reentry fellowships.

And the good thing is that that we are at a time in the UK where we have the creation of the UKRI, which is a major organization. So there are challenges afoot, but there are also opportunities for us too because UKRI is pushing this issue around talent management within the notion of research infrastructure, and how do we make the mobility and people of ideas happen. If you’ve got good ideas, we have some space now to run with them.

It’s very interesting — the use of language to talk about talent management in a higher education context just doesn’t really work. Even to some extent, and I think this is a particular challenge for the social science, is that the word leadership has slightly negative dimensions. As soon as you say leadership, almost the DNA of a social scientist is – quite correctly – to challenge top-down power and authority.

I wouldn’t want to ever change that. In a sense, though, you have to be careful to play the game. And to understand that the research leadership agenda is about helping academics, build the platforms and have the skills to undertake world-class research in a very new international landscape.

I think that’s something where we really need to try and get across to a lot of academics, that the game is changing, the notion of being an academic is changing, the role of a professor is changing. And these things are going to change. We can either moan and groan and heckle from the sidelines. Or we can step up to the mark and say, ‘OK, how do we play a positive shaping role? That puts us at the core rather than the periphery?’

Why is research,leadership different from institutionally focused organizational studies or something like that? Why do I  need to reinvent the wheel when there’s lots of wheels out there already?

The funny thing is, I think if you’re an academic, there aren’t that many wheels turning for you. But you raise a really important point, which is the different frame between management and leadership. There are huge amounts of research and consultancies and training courses, about leadership, blah, blah, blah. There’s also quite a big literature about leadership in universities. But when you look at it, that is predominantly about managerial leadership, vice chancellors, pro vice chancellors, dean’s, and all that. Where there is a real gap in our knowledge is around intellectual leadership — and that matters because of the way the landscape is changing.

My sense is that we’re moving to a world where the big research opportunities are going to exist around a smaller number of much larger research projects. Those research projects will be very interdisciplinary, they will be international in scope, they might involve a range of funders, they’ll be very ambitious. They will include elements of co-design and co-production with potential research users; they will essentially be team science projects, where actually the team itself is not just all academics. It will be academics, it will be professional research support staff (which is an area of the university life that has been completely overlooked). It will be research unit users, and it might be more broad public groups as well.

So the challenge is that social sciences, arts and humanities have simply never really incentivized or work within that team science model. So that is why there’s a need to reinvent the wheel. Because if the social sciences are going to put themselves at the center, rather than at the periphery, of the research opportunities that are on the horizon, going to have to think quite differently about the science of team science, and how the social sciences fit within that.


Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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