Bringing social science into the forefront of interdisciplinary research – a reflection of my time at the ESRC

by Tony McEnery

Former ESRC Director of Research and interim Chief Executive, Tony McEnery, reflects on some personal highlights and organisational successes during his time at ESRC.

I have had the unique privilege of working as Director of Research in two of the UK research councils – the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and, more recently, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It will come as no surprise to discover, then, that for me cross-council working comes easily – which was handy while steering the ESRC towards the move into UK Research and Innovation!

But in terms of interdisciplinary working, my highlight is my engagement with the Alan Turing Institute (ATI) – working with Alan Wilson at ATI and colleagues at ESRC we pioneered the first Research Councils UK-funded fellowships based in the ATI. These have brought the social sciences into the heart of the ATI and has provided the opportunity for researchers from any UK university to work within the Turing. Given that these researchers will also be supervising PhD students as part of their fellowship, I am very happy to have been a part of bringing the best in social science and data science together.

For my next highlight, I will mention the work I did looking at the future of the ESRC’s centres. This has led to a new model of centre funding which should see our centres develop and endure in a more sustainable fashion. Importantly, this work also recommended the creation of ESRC research institutes – very long term investments by the ESRC in truly outstanding researchers who align well with our strategic priorities. The first two research institutes were announced this month and I am sure that everyone would agree that not only do these institutes represent an outstanding investment for ESRC, they are also of truly international importance.

Moving along, I was very happy to work with Alex Hulkes to set up the ESRC’s Insights function and to initiate some detailed analyses of ESRC’s grant awarding – this has started to produce a stream of high quality analyses of ESRC’s funding that are of use to UK Research and Innovation, HEIs and applicants alike. I look forward to reading more analyses from Alex and his team in the future.

A real privilege of working at a senior level in the research councils is that one has the chance to shape the research landscape for years to come. At AHRC I had the good fortune to be a driving force behind the establishment of the Religion and Society programme with ESRC so I understood well just how important such investments are. At ESRC I have worked hard to deliver new investments in areas as diverse as Brexit; trust and global governance; and climate change. In addition I was a strong advocate of our Impact Acceleration Accounts and worked to ensure that these were used to help universities prepare for the challenges emerging from the new Industrial Strategy.

My work with ESRC’s international team is also an area where we have achieved real impact, with new grant programmes agreed and delivered jointly with Canada, Colombia and India, amongst others. We also worked hard to sustain existing strong relationships with funders worldwide, notably in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States, while developing new partnerships with countries further afield through our Newton programme and by opening dialogues with countries such as Japan.

While it is the type of work that may make some readers glaze over, I was also very happy, while interim Chief Executive of the ESRC, to arrange for more money to be made available to our research grants scheme for autumn 2017 – as a consequence of this the success rate of the ESRC responsive mode scheme recovered to a level it has not been at for some time.

Finally, I was delighted to be able to work with colleagues to argue for the resources to maintain and develop ESRC’s crucial data investments, such as Understanding Society. The value of such resources cannot be overstated and to have played a part in sustaining such a long term enterprise is something I am quietly very proud of.

To have a leading role in shaping the research agenda of one of the world’s leading research system was a wonderful experience. I wish the ESRC and its excellent staff all the best for the future – and that future will not only be bright but hugely significant too.


tony-mcenery-blogProfessor Tony McEnery joined ESRC in October 2016 as Director of Research, on secondment from Lancaster University where he was Director of the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS). He took up the role of interim Chief Executive of ESRC in August 2017, until January 2018.

Tony has worked with scholars from a broad range of subjects, including accountancy, criminology, international relations, religious studies and sociology. He has also worked with an array of impact partners including British Telecom, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Environment Agency, the Home Office, IBM and Research in Motion. Tony was also Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at Lancaster, and before that Director of Research at the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

He left ESRC in April 2018 to join Trinity College London as their Director of Strategy.

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