HL Deb 15 December 1981 vol 426 cc86-9

2.54 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what the safeguards will be to ensure that, under the proposed restructuring of the Social Science Research Council, fundamental research in the social sciences, as opposed to policy studies, will be continued.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Elton)

My Lords, I assume that the noble Baroness is referring to the new structure for the Social Science Research Council's committees, which was made public through the council's recent document, A Change in Structure for Changing Circumstances. The council's continued concern to support fundamental research in the social sciences was made clear at many points in that document.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for that Answer, which I was aware of. What I really want to ask him is whether he would agree that it is social anthropology which is in particular of very great value—not only because it has an extremely detailed focus but also because of its comparative approach? This has to draw, of course, on foreign, on worldwide, experience. With that in mind, will the Minister say whether overseas research in social anthropology will continue to be well supported?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the council is a chartered body, and the disposition of the council's funds as between its various activities is a matter for the council itself acting within the terms of its Royal Charter. I cannot answer for it.

Lord Robbins

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether the fundamental research in social sciences which overlaps both the Committee for Social Sciences and the British Academy and other bodies will be sufficiently co-ordinated in the days to come?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I find that question difficult to answer because, as I say, the disposition of the resources of the council are for the council itself. I can say that the council's research grant scheme, which is open to grant applications in the fields of both fundamental and applied research, remains an important part of the council's method of supporting research, and that the grant applications are judged for the purposes of decision about funding by academic referees. I think the term is "peer review system of judgment". I think it is in the hands of those people that this surveillance that the noble Lord is asking about will rest.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that there is in the academic community at large grave doubt about the efficiency and economy with which the Social Science Research Council has carried on its obligations?—that it is believed that the British Academy does the same job for the humanities at very much less cost? And would the Government consider whether some similar way of channelling funds through private learned societies and universities would not be a better way of doing it than the bureaucratic superstructure of the Social Science Research Council?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we seem this afternoon to be in the habit of getting rather away from the original Question asked. I take note of what the noble Lord says about the comparative esteem in which different bodies are held, and I shall draw it to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Lord Annan

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that social scientists owe a considerable debt to the present chairman of the Social Science Research Council for the way in which he has taken note through his restructuring of the council of criticisms of the council's former operations such as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, referred to a moment ago? Would he not agree that we ought to have confidence in his judgment and in the council's judgment about their priorities? Would he further agree that in such matters as deciding whether to send on council funds four social scientists to Amsterdam for a conference or one social anthropologist to Borneo, this is a matter that is much better left to the judgment of the chairman and the council?

Lord Elton

My Lords, on the first part, the Government always welcome an institution examining its functions and reorganising them to meet current pressures. As to the second, I have already said that the disposal of funds is a matter for the council and not for the Government.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, would the noble Lord accept that the amount of money spent on such branches of social science as that mentioned by the noble Baroness in her supplementary question, which might through basic understanding contribute to our resolution of social conflicts and tensions, is microscopic compared to all the research paid for on the material aspects of our culture which create those social tensions and conflicts?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am not quite certain of the tenor of the noble Earl's question, but I would never belittle the value of academic research into practical affairs.

Lord Walston

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that particularly the social anthropological work carried out under the auspices of the SSCR is of enormous value to the standing of this country, and particularly the academic aspects of this country, overseas? In view of the answers given and the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, and particularly in view of the cuts in overseas student grants, is it not essential that we do all that we can both on the Government side and on other sides to ensure that that work, which does so much to promote our good standing overseas, is not curtailed?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Lord is probably aware that the Secretary of State is considering advice which he has received from the Advisory Board for Research Councils on the distribution of the science budget in 1982–83, and I am certain he will do so in the light of what the noble Lord has said.

Lady Young of Dartington

My Lords, can we take it from what the Minister has already said that he accepts that, while fundamental research in anthropology and other disciplines remains important, it is also highly desirable that research should be devoted to problems of social and economic policy which, as other noble Lords have said, increase in importance and difficulty rather than the other way round?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the council is actively engaged in supporting research in many policy-relevant fields of study. Two of the most topical and important are unemployment and law and order in the inner cities. It is open to departments to seek to commission research directed towards their policy concern with the council.