§ 7.36 p.m.
§ Lord Beloff rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take in respect of Lord Rothschild's Report on the Social Science Research Council.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Unstarred Question which appears in my name on the Order Paper. I should like to begin by thanking noble Lords who have put their names down to take part in this discussion, and in particular the noble Lord who is going to reply on behalf of the Government, since I fully realise that his response will have to be a tentative one. We understand, indeed it has been officially stated, that consultations between the Secretary of State and various bodies are still continuing, and we would not expect the Government's conclusions until they were complete. On the other hand, this House does not appear to have been one of the bodies to be collectively consulted, and perhaps this evening's debate might be regarded as a substitute.
§ I wonder indeed if the noble Lord will be able to tell us what he thinks of The Times Higher Educational Supplement headline of 28th May last, "Report riles Joseph", and whether the Secretary of State is, as that newspaper informed us, very annoyed about the report. I do not know the views of the Secretary of State. I think myself that the report, which is a remarkable document to have been completed in so short a time, has done a good deal to establish at least two points: first, that while the social sciences are a particularly difficult and sensitive area of research because of their political and social connotations, they nevertheless deserve a measure of public support, for the same reason as public support is sought for the natural sciences or for the humanities; that is to say, because there are certain forms of addition to our knowledge, to our treasures of information, which it is right for the state to support.
§ The second point, I think made in the Report, is that, while far from perfect, the Social Science Research Council is probably, or could be if reformed, as good a single instrument for supporting such research as it is likely one could devise; and the only alternative, which is not fully considered in the report, would be wider dissemination of public money to universities, to learned societies in the field, and so forth.
§ Furthermore, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, has shown himself sensitive of the great dangers which are particular to the social sciences— 289 that insufficiently rigorous standards will be applied where the support given by the council may determine the whole direction of research in particular areas of study. Because social science research is partly collective research, because it partly demands institutions or teams rather than individual scholarship, the selection of such teams or places of study may give a particular cast to the bulk of published research in a particular field. This of course has made it difficult to say whether or not the policies followed have been wise, because one cannot do that without picking out particular areas of study, and none of us would claim a comparable range to that which the council itself possesses.
§ The point that was perhaps missed by the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, was the extent to which the Social Science Research Council began under the impulse of its original chairman, Lord Young, to diffuse, as a matter of policy, support for the social sciences and attention to opinions on the social sciences in a very wide range of universities. It was, as it were, a specifically democratic rather than elitist form of sponsorship, different from what is done by academies and that, I believe, in any science—social or natural—is a very dubious policy. Certainly the treatment of the Rothschild Report and of the evidence submitted to it in The Times Higher Education Supplement and elsewhere, suggests extreme sensitivity to criticism, sensitivity which I think your Lordships may wish to ignore in order that light may be cast.
§ I should like to ask—in so far as the noble Lord can reply for the Government at this stage—what are the likely comments of the Government on certain particular recommendations. Do the Government, for instance, consider that the changes in the internal organisation of the council which had, in fact, begun under its present chairman, before the report, will be sufficient to give greater assurance to the scholarly community of the intellectual calibre of those who actually make the decisions? What is the Government's view about the desirability—on which the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, places great emphasis—of improved links with industry and commerce? What is the Government's view of the noble Lord's suggestion that the giving of grants would be fortified if there were greater consultation with recognised experts in the field on the part of the permanent staff? Finally, what would the Government's view be—this is a matter on which I have no particular view myself—of the contention by the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, that the Social Science Research Council and those groups, organisations and individuals whom it backs, are lacking in powers of presentation so that some of the work done, though valuable itself, does not play a part in forming policy or opinion which is desirable?
§ I should like to deal in some detail with one matter upon which the Government needs not give an opinion because the council has already taken steps in response to the report, and that is the question of the research carried on in industrial relations at the University of Warwick. There is to be a very distinguished inquiry headed by Sir Kenneth Berrill into the claim which I put forward in my evidence that that research had, on the whole, suffered from bias towards an exclusively trade union point of view. I dwell on it not—as The Times Higher Education Supplement 290 appears to think—because I have any personal axe to grind, but because I think that one of the fields (not the only field) where the whole difficulty of publicly sponsored, publicly paid for, research is made most evident is in the social sciences.
Let me take your Lordships back to a notable document—or at least notable in its time but it seems to have been largely forgotten now—namely, the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy. Noble Lords will remember that that was a rather remarkable report because its terms of reference began with the words:
Accepting the need for a radical extension of industrial democracy in the control of companies by means of representation on boards of directors, and accepting the essential role of trade union organisations in this process, to consider how such an extension can best be achieved".
It is perhaps not exactly the same as the Science Research Council sponsoring a project which began by assuming that the moon is made of green cheese. Nevertheless, it does introduce, as it were, the findings of an inquiry into the terms of reference and it was the view of some people that this was an inappropriate form of inquiry for academic participation. I would also remind your Lordships that the three members of that inquiry, who were themselves industrialists of experience, pointed out in their minority report:
Whilst the signatories to the Majority Report have not argued their case on the basis of the TUC 'control' proposition, it is clear to us that in many circles control by, and the exercise of much increased power by, the Trade Unions is regarded as a main objective".
§ The relation of this to the University of Warwick is that of the two academics on this committee one was the then director of the SSRC Industrial Relations Unit, and the committee expressed their appreciation of the importance of the work done on their behalf by two groups of researchers again at the University of Warwick and at the same unit. So we have a committee in which one of the academic members, who incidentally on all contentious issues voted with the trade union members and against the industrialists, was also commissioning work from his own unit to support the work of the inquiry.
§ I would not for a moment say that this is an inappropriate way in which to approach industrial relations. It is perfectly proper that a unit should explore industrial relations from the point of view of the trade union movement. The question is whether it is appropriate for such research to be funded out of the public purse. If the Trades Union Congress wished to investigate the possibilities of greater trade union control of industry, why should they not fund the research themselves?
§ There is, of course, other evidence which the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, himself quotes and which certainly did not come from me. Perhaps of equal interest is the fact that, in its quite long history now, the unit has never examined what many people would think—and in the light of our experience at the moment would certainly think—is one of the most important aspects of British industrial relations—namely, the extent to which, let us say, in the railway industry or the newspaper press there has been a sustained resistance by trade unions to the adoption of more modern methods; that is to say, that surely in 15 years 291 there might have been some attention to a matter as fundamental as this.
§ Again, since the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, produced his book on the closed shop 20 years ago, a great deal has happened in that respect in legislation and in practice in this country and in others, but it has been left to someone from another university—privately financed, or financed in part by his own university—to write a sequel to Lord McCarthy's book. There was—and it shows how difficult the whole of this subject is—a very curious defence made of the unit by the director of the Leverhulme Trust in the columns of The Times Higher Education Supplement, to which the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, himself made a fairly convincing reply. It was assumed that because the Leverhulme Trust had given money this was, as it were, a certificate of lack of bias in the institution. With all apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, who I am delighted will follow me, for those of us who know the world of foundations there are a great many examples where money, which has been accumulated through the exercise of capitalist enterprise has been put for distribution in the hands of Left-inclined intellectuals and used to support projects, units and policies which the donors of that money would perhaps themselves never have thought suitable.
§ Of course, industrial relations is by no means the only difficult area for the Social Science Research Council. As I indicated very briefly in my evidence, there is the even more difficult and contentious area of race relations, which one can approach in a variety of ways. My view would be—and I maintain it—that one of the least profitable ways of assisting in the research which we require in order to solve the problems of our ethnic minorities is the view which takes their disabilities, which are real, and their difficulties, as somehow part of a worldwide revolt of the coloured peoples against the former white imperialists. I must say that I find this a very curious notion. Again, the fact that if you have only one unit the spirit which infuses it is likely to be of great importance, suggests yet another example of where there are great difficulties in deciding what is a proper area for expenditure in this field.
§ Another might be the field of education. I note that of the two professors of education who are entrusted with important research functions by the Social Science Research Council at the moment, one is Professor Blackstone of the University of London, best known for her unremitting public assaults on selective and independent education. I think that many of us who are concerned in the educational world, who have experience in it, would not regard research by Professor Blackstone as carrying with it the stamp of scholarly impartiality.
§ But, of course, it is not only a question of areas of great social or political sensitivity. There is also the question of whether fairly neutral areas are themselves suitable for public support. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of what, I am afraid, is a very old but, on this occasion, very relevant story in relation to the data archive at the University of Essex into which a good deal of money is put and which largely—but not, of course, exclusively—produces interesting statistics about elections, voting behaviour and other 292 such matters. The story, with which your Lordships will be familiar, is that of the lady at the zoo, looking at a hippopotamus and asking the keeper what was the sex of the hippopotamus. As your Lordships will remember, the keeper's reply was, "That is of interest only to another hippopotamus".
§ In my view, the reasons why people support political parties and the statistical apparatus by which one judges the movement of the electorate are of great interest to other political parties. No doubt noble Lords on the Front Bench opposite would very much like to know for their own political purposes what makes people vote for the Alliance, but I do not think that discovering that is a matter on which public money should be spent. It is surely appropriate for political parties, if they require such information, to pay for their own research.
§ Therefore, we have from the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, though going some way towards looking at the problems and some way towards solving them, still, on the whole, one would think a fairly clean bill of health, if I can put it that way, for the council. There is, of course, a good deal to be said for his final view that it ought now to be allowed to put its house in order and that for three years at least no further inquiry should be entered upon. One would again like to ask the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government whether the Government take the view that this is a stage in the development of the council at which it now might be allowed to rest.
§ Finally, however, I should like to ask a question which is not mentioned in the report itself but which is the subject of what purports to be a news item in the current issue of The Times Higher Education Supplement, where we are told that Her Majesty's Government are considering a humanities research council, or a council dealing with both the humanities and the social sciences. I hope that this is an occasion when the press has got it wrong.I can think of no more inappropriate way of organising research into the humanities than through a Government-appointed council. As I think the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, will explain to the House with far greater authority than I can, the British Academy uses public money more economically, I would think, than any public body, in order to further such research, and certainly does not need to be engulfed in a more bureaucratic institution.
§ Nor, for the reasons that I have given, do I think that the problems of the humanities and the problems of the social sciences are sufficiently akin for a single body to deal with both of them. Indeed, if I had to amalgamate that body with another, I should have thought that one of the natural science research councils would be more appropriate, because what is most lacking in handling the problems of funding research in the social sciences is the kind of judgment which natural scientists can apply. But there, too, there are problems which will readily occur to your Lordships. All I would hope is that this particular rumour can be quashed before this evening is out.
§ 8 p.m.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, for asking this Question and giving us an opportunity to discuss this important report while in parliamentary terms it is almost hot from the 293 press. Also we are grateful to have had an opportunity of listening to an extension of the strongly critical views which the noble Lord contributed to Lord Rothschild's inquiry. Lord Rothschild, as ever, has done an excellent job. The singular clarity of the report and its deft organisation make it a pleasure to read.
Apart from the noble Lord who is speaking on behalf of the Government, I am the only non-academic taking part in this debate, but a quarter of a century ago I took five years out of journalism to work as assistant director of the Nuffield Foundation. Indeed, it was through Nuffield that I first met the noble Lords, Lord Young and Lord Swann, and although I did not meet the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, I was very much concerned with Dr. Furneaux who contributed some rather valuable evidence for the famous Robbins Report.
My work was mostly in the field of the social sciences. I had to organise the applications for projects, submit them to the scrutiny of other authorities in the field, and then present them to the trustees. As most of the trustees were eminent in other sciences the projects received from them a keen and sceptical examination which was never unjust, though sometimes I found it salutary and somewhat embarrassing. Reading this report brought back to me my Nuffield days. Moreover, it supported the views I developed from my experience there that though the social sciences have far greater limitation than the layman supposes, they are none the less essential as an aid to an understanding of our manifold social problems.
Lord Rothschild, himself a biologist, provides in this report the best and the clearest defence of the social sciences that I have ever read; an acknowlegment at once of their shortcomings and a justification of their support. He reminds us that the social sciences suffered from being more comprehensible to the laymen than are the natural sciences, so an investigation which produces results that accord with common sense can seem unnecessary and one which does not accord with common sense can seem incredible; so there is a kind of no-win situation.
Then it is necessary to distinguish between research and development in the natural sciences and in the social sciences. The object of the first is to find out whether or how something can be done. The purpose of applied social research is to provide material on which to conduct a more informed debate and make better decisions. Lord Rothschild prints at length a most useful and balanced criticism of sociology by the professor in that subject at Washington, Seattle. There is, says Professor Farris, an accumulation of tested knowledge in such parts of the discipline as methodology, ecology, demography, the study of social differentiation and mobility, and research into attitudes, public opinion, and mass communication. But other fields have done less well, and critics have put it down to the appetite of sociologists for jargon, for pseudo-quantification, too much imitation of the methods of natural sciences and too much dependence on data from interviews and questionnaires. I should like to echo that strongly from my own experience. There is a dispute about its main purpose, as indeed there may be in the entire field of science: whether it is to provide an intellectual understanding of the cosmos, or to be 294 an instrument for the immediate improvement of the human lot.
To this Lord Rothschild adds part of the suspicion which sociology has evoked arises from early claims that it would occupy for the human sciences the position of physics in the other natural sciences. The parallel to social science is not physics, he said, but that part of biology which studies the habits of a particular organism. And in the social sciences, alongside strict scientific methods of research there may be need of historical, linguistic, even literary evidence. Indeed, it may be necessary to make use of fundamental sciences outside the social sciences, such as physiology.
I suppose that Lord Rothschild felt all this philosophical examination of the nature of the social sciences to be essential because the very basis of the work of the Social Science Research Council is scoffed at by too many natural scientists and too many scholars in the humanities. It is essential to remove the misconceptions of what the social sciences are, the way they operate and the purposes they can serve before a case for their generous endowment by the Exchequer can be made. It is also necessary to identify the consumers of their work.
Lord Rothschild was asked by Sir Keith Joseph which areas of the council's work should be done at the expense of the "ultimate customer" rather than the Exchequer; which areas supported by the Exchequer could be done as well by other bodies; which areas supported by the Exchequer through other bodies could be better covered by the council. The answer to the first and most important of the Minister's questions is that whereas in the natural sciences the customer is the person who wants it done, the social science customer includes all those who have a part to play in the decision-making process. The decisions to which most of the research sponsored by the council contributes are essentially governmental. But in a democratic society these decisions are not the sole concerns of Ministers or officials. The beneficiaries of this applied research are Members of Parliament, journalists, academics and the public at large. There is no single customer who might take out a contract. So though much research may still be commissioned by such customers as Government departments and private organisations, the public interest requires, Lord Rothschild says, an independent source of funds for research which such customers cannot be expected to undertake.
There is also a need for independence from Government departments because so much social science research is the very stuff of political debate.It would be too much"—says Lord Rothschild,to expect Ministers to glow with enthusiasm for research designed to show that their policies were misconceived. But it seems obvious that in many cases the public interest will be served by such research being undertaken.Having had only three months to complete the report, Lord Rothschild has relied largely on the letters he solicited, about 300 of them, expressing the views of a large number of scholars and eminent administrators. On the whole, in spite of its imperfections, they give the council a fairly clean bill, and nobody seems anxious to take over any of its functions.
295 Lord Rothschild says:It is hard to accept the rationale for its dismemberment, casting the bits and pieces to a number of institutions, some of whom would be unlikely to want, and some of them unlikely to be able, to digest morsels of this kind.But he recommends a number of improvements, while saying firmly that the Government should not liquidate the SSRC any more than they should dismember it. They should not reduce its budget further over the next few years, and they should stop making incessant inquiries into the work of the council. Anybody who has had to work for any rganisations which is subject to continual cuts of grant and continual inquiry knows how devastating that can be on the morale and efficiency of an organisation.
There is of course one recommmendation of rather sensational interest. The chairman of the council, he said, must cause to be investigated Lord Beloff's accusation that the Council's Industrial Relations Unit at Warwick or the Panel for the Monitoring of Labour Legislation are unfairly biased in favour of the unions. The noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, cannot have made this recommendation without a good deal of thought and, I should have thought, a rather heavy heart. I do not know of any precedent for an inquiry of this kind at a British university, although there may be some. Of course, Lord Rothschild could do no other, when a Member of this House, who occupies aposition of such high esteem in the academic world as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, does, makes such an allegation in an inquiry set up by the Minister. It cannot then just be noted and left for the council itself. After all, the council is itself under challenge in the matter.
In any event, as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said, the inquiry was set up only yesterday and I suggest that on the whole one should consider the matter to be sub judice and not to go into it. Lord Beloff may be proved right or not wholly right. His evidence is by far the most critically phrased and radical of all that quoted in the report. He is doubtful, indeed, about the desirability of perpetuating the council in anything like its present form, although I thought the noble Lord's views today were a little more moderate than they were in his evidence. He speaks, indeed, of the low quality of the council itself and of many of its committees and panels. I thought that was a rather surprising remark to make about the council—for such a remark to be made by one professor about a body which contains about eight other professors. However, I think the council has been considerably changed since the original list on which he was commenting. Sir Keith has made some important changes in the council.
I could not help but wonder, as I listened to the noble Lord today, with his demand for impartial scholarship, whether that was not too thick a demand. I am sorry to see him shaking his head.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, I did not assume that impartial scholarship was attainable. I said only that where it was likely to be partial, or thought to be partial, the public purse should be not involved.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, I should have said that, if it is to be non-partial before the public purse is 296 involved, I do not know where one will find it. I would not expect to find it in the noble Lord himself. One must not expect to find it in individual scholars. If one is dealing with a unit and that unit has one particular political direction, that is a very different matter from suggesting that any particular individual scholar should be impartial in all the investigation he undertakes. I cannot help but feel that Lord Beloff's quite right scholarly fastidiousness about the subject is also fortified by his deep conservatism. It is my experience that people with very strong conservative views have a certain suspicion of the social sciences because they reveal the flaws in society, and the revelation of those flaws creates a demand for radical, and often costly, reform. However, we must await the outcome of the inquiry.
The noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, said—I am in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, on this point—that the most serious weakness of the council is its failure to make known to the general public its own work and that of the social scientists it finances. He regards its efforts as primitive and unprofessional. Indeed, the results of this failure have been serious and have contributed to the establishment of this inquiry; the inquiry itself might not have arisen if the council had been less primitive and less unprofessional in its presentation of the work it is doing.
There can be no stronger supporter of attempts to suppress jargon in the social sciences than I. He even goes so far as to say that the council should not only put its own house in order, but persuade the people it supports to suppress unnecessary jargon. They would have a hard time doing that, and I speak with some feeling on the subject. I have lately returned from a UNESCO seminar where I had to fight my way through clouds of jargon. In my time I have had the maximum exposure to such language, but at that seminar there were times when I could not tell what they were talking about—and I wondered whether they could tell what they were talking about. A number of poeple who called themselves communicologists seemed to be incapable of communicating with anybody, except with one another. Indeed, I thought it was not so much thought they were uttering as a kind of incantation in which they all joined. We are very fortunate to have had a report of this quality, and I hope the Government will take notice of the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild.
§ 8.16 p.m.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, we are indeed grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, because he has, with his initiative, done exactly what the Secretary of State wanted done, namely brought about discussion of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, in Parliament. I also very much sympathise with what he said about the Secretary of State himself. Some very unpleasant things have been said about Sir Keith Joseph. It is perfectly reasonable for a Secretary of State to ask that something of which he and his friends are suspicious, and think is not working properly, should be looked into. In fact, that is what a change of Government is about.
I would cite as an example what Mr. Tony Crosland did when he was Secretary of State. He initiated an inquiry—on which the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, 297 and I sat and suffered for many months—into the public schools. There was, however, this difference—and this is in Sir Keith Joseph's favour—that Mr. Crosland insisted on terms of reference which certainly constricted the committee in the views it was able to express, whereas Sir Keith has given a completely clear run to the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild. It is a very good report. It is brief, decisive and says what needs to be said. I am also glad that it is enlivened by humour. How correct Lord Rothschild was to refer to the importance of, "knowing when some eminent scholar is past it, something that happens at almost any age."
Although I am not a social scientist, as a member of the Heyworth Committee, which recommended that the SSRC should be set up, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, endorses that recommendation and dismisses the idea of putting this kind of work under the department itself as being, naturally, open to the imputation of political bias. I am bound to say also that I think he is right when he concludes that the British Academy is not the right body. I remember when the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, and that redoubtable secretary of the Academy, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, came before the Heyworth Committee and said that if the committee was willing to recommend, they would be willing, for the Academy, to deal with the whole business of the allocation of grants. I then asked Sir Mortimer what would happen when there was an application from a sociologist—because at that time there was no single Fellow of the British Academy who was a sociologist—and Sir Mortimer replied, "Perfectly all right. We'll bring in the barbarians". I have no doubt that Sir Mortimer would have been as good as his word, but the question was whether he would have selected the right barbarians to make the decision as to whether or not a particular piece of research was worthy. I see that in its evidence the Academy now thinks that it is better to leave things as they are.
Why has this inquiry come about? It has come about—
§ Lord Robbins
My Lords, I must put a slight gloss on the noble Lord's account of what went on before the Heyworth Committee. The suggestion which Sir Mortimer Wheeler and I put forward was simply that we should be responsible, as we were in 11 other sections, for the grants to economics and, if necessary, to sociology. We never suggested—and I completely sympathise with the present president of the Academy—that all the other, to my way of thinking, extraneous functions should be conjoined.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, I must thank the noble Lord for his excellent, admirable and entirely correct gloss.
I was asking the question, why it was that the inquiry was set up? What was the origin of the suspicions about the SSRC? I can think of one reason for it. There is a general misconception in public as to what the social sciences can achieve. Nobody ever asks natural scientists to justify the practical results of their researches. One of the greatest of new fields in biology, as the noble Lord, Lord Swann, knows only too well, is that of molecular biology. It is hoped that research into DNA and the reason why cells suddenly get a message to multiply inordinately will lead to the 298 discovery of the causes of certain kinds of cancer. But the kind of research which is now done in laboratories on molecular biology is still a long way from affecting medical treatment of cancer.
The social sciences are often expected by those not really acquainted with them to produce immediate results; what Sir Karl Popper used to call social engineering.
It is of course more important that we should have modest expectations of what social science can teach us rather than those vast explanations of the way in which society works, which Karl Marx or Auguste Comte, the founders of sociology in the 19th century, produced in their time. But very often, even though teams are assembled and funded and conduct research, the results in terms of practical application are very limited. I think, for example, of the admirable decision by Rab Butler to set up an institute of criminology at Cambridge. Undoubtedly some practical results have come from that institute, but many of its conclusions amount simply to the point that crime is just one of the ways in which society expresses itself. People who thought that the institute would produce results which would lead to a decrease in crime were over optimistic.
In fact social scientists themselves are sometimes guilty of over-selling their subject. The trouble is that a very few social scientists, some economists and some social administrators are, I fear, crude and arrogant. I would describe their way of approaching the subject by saying that they produce the syndrome of the four-letter man. What happens is this. They choose an area of social discontent and then they declare that it has been by them "thoroughly researched". They then declare that the remedies that they recommend for the social discontent must immediately be put into effect. When the Minister, official, chief executive, or the managing director in a particular concern does not do so at once, they pillory him. If he says that he requires time for the piece of research that they have done to be discussed, they accuse him of procrastination. If he says that the whole project that they have outlined is too expensive, they declare that the expenditure of a few millions to remedy the discontent is a fraction of the cost of Trident. If he still refuses to take the action that they have recommended, they then call him a four-letter man. That is the syndrome.
That is one of the reasons why social science research has got a bad name among politicians. That is why for some it is synonymous with arrogance, power without responsibility, and bias. I now ask the question, is it biassed? I shall not go into the affairs of the industrial relations unit at Warwick University, because that matter is now to be the subject of an inquiry under Sir Kenneth Berrill. I would add only that industrial relations is a subject which got under way in the 1930s—Montague Burton, for example, founded a chair in the subject—because it was realised that this was a new, third estate of the realm emerging, about which most people in universities and many people in public life at that time knew very little. That is why industrial relations research has concentrated on the unions themselves, rather than on the management side.
But when it comes to discussing bias I would say 299 that there can be no value-free social science. If you take history, you will find today that one of the most eminent of social historians is the Marxist historian Professor Hobsbawm. Or you can turn to the past and think of that great Whig historian George Trevelyan. Or you can turn to his great opponent, the Conservative historian, Sir Lewis Namier. Those are men who have written history from a point of view, who have tried to show that they took other people's arguments into account, yet nevertheless maintained their own particular point of view and showed why they made what they considered to be more reasonable inferences than those whom they criticised. But those men won renown not because of political stance, but because of their grasp of the underlying legal, political, social principles and the way that societies change over the years.
Again if one takes economics, it was in the 1950s common knowledge that there was a great difference between the political outlook of the Faculty of Economics under its great leader the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, at the London School of Economics, and the Faculty of Economics at Cambridge which adopted different principles. Ricardo was quite right when he said that the subject ought to be called political economy, and not just economics.
If I turn to sociology, I would say that it is simply untrue that all sociologists must be by definition left-wing. Dr. Wilson, a sociologist of religion at All Souls, is certainly a fit companion and adviser of Warden Sparrow. Of course it is natural for someone who examines some part of society, or some social relationship, to stress the diseconomies and discontents which disturb that relationship, or that part of society. But he is just as likely to conclude that to alter any part of that relationship would be to destroy something exceedingly valuable.
For instance, in America universities are now compelled, under new laws which go by the name of "affirmative action", to institute elaborate procedures to ensure that all candidates for a post get fair and equal treatment and consideration. A sociologist might observe that the price of this extra concern for fairness, which entails that every expression of opinion about a candidate, every letter, every telephone call, has to be logged and open to public inspection, has been the collapse of the system of confidential reports on which previously peer review was based. In other words, the sociologist may well conclude that reform and change has had the very opposite effect from that which the reformers desired to achieve.
I next ask whether the SSRC has neglected hard-nosed social sciences, such as economics, which require a formidable apparatus of analysis, in favour of vapid studies, such as sociology and anthropology. On anthropology, I think Sir Edmund Leach says in Chapter 10 of the report all that needs to be said. On sociology, I would say this. There are undoubtedly a number of weak departments of sociology and of social studies in British universities today, and the report says so. Why is this? It is not the fault of the subject: it is the fault of dons of Oxford and Cambridge, and to some extent of London, in the 40 years between 1920 and 1960. The bitter enmity by historians and economists to a subject which already had 300 major figures at the turn of the century in Weber and Durkheim, had a disastrous effect.
There was a good deal of crude academic politics in this. No post in sociology was established at Cambridge until the 1960s, and even later at Oxford. At the London School of Economics and Bedford departments of sociology flourished, but they were small in terms of the numbers of students who came through the departments. That was the reason why, when in the 'sixties there was an overpowering desire at last to expand this subject and to recognise that it was a subject of importance, as had been recognised for years in France and Germany—and in all major American universities—no cadres of young academics existed to fill the new posts.
But let no one doubt that there are excellent men and women in this subject. If I may cite one who is the son of a Member of your Lordships' House, there is Mr. Runciman, who combines being the managing director of his family shipping business and writing illuminating books on sociology as a Title B Fellow of Trinity which, as a Cambridge man whose affection for Oxford is unassailable, I would describe as being at least equal in distinction to that of a Fellow of All Souls.
But when the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, criticised Lord Young for his policy as the first chairman of the Social Science Research Council, and for spreading its funds too widely, I would say that Lord Young was responding to a situation which I would not wish to call academic conservatism, because conservatism is an honourable word, but a situation produced by academic pigheadedness over many years, and a refusal to acknowledge what had in fact been recognised as a subject of distinction in other countries. It was for that reason that the SSRC in its early years tried to encourage all sorts of initiatives which sober people would have said were ridiculous.
I think the SSRC was right to support a struggling subject—a subject which has made important contributions to knowledge. It is sociology and the study of society which has transformed historical research. Historical research is now unrecognisable from what it was before the days of Marc Bloch and the great French school which centred round the periodical Annales in the Sixième Section of the Collège de France.
You can of course kill the SSRC, not by suppressing it but by refusing to finance it adequately. That is what the chairman of the UGC said in paragraph 9.165 of the report. If you cut its funds still further, then the support that it can give to the multitudinous branches of the social sciences will mean that the overheads of the council become totally disproportionate to what it can achieve in distributing those funds.
What I think would be deplorable is if there were further criticism, not merely of the council or its present chairman, Dr. Posner. Before the Rothschild inquiry Dr. Posner was overhauling the structure of the SSRC, and it is clear from the report that he had got management consultants in to look at its efficiency. Of course, Lord Rothschild suggests that there are other matters to which he could direct his attention, but the fact is that Dr. Posner had the courage to run counter to the wishes of a lot of his constituents among 301 social scientists in order to see that the country got value for money.
The only reform that I wish had been recommended in the report is that the council's name should be changed from the Council for Social Science Research to the Council for Social Studies, because "science" is a misleading word in this context. It is true that sociologists, economists and social scientists of all kinds make use of techniques which are very often statistical in their origin, sometimes methodological, but do not themselves constitute a science. I think that if we were to think of this council as supporting social studies we would be!much happier in realising what results can be achieved. So the report seems to me to be a vindication of the value of the work of the SSRC, and I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, will endorse that view when he answers the Question.
§ 8.38 p.m.
§ Lord Young of Dartington
My Lords, I should like to join with others who have spoken in thanking Lord Beloff for opening this debate tonight, and I should especially like to thank him for the moderate tone he adopted. As the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, said, the tone he adopted tonight was rather different from the tone he adopted in the evidence which is recorded in this report, and for that I and others here, I think, will be grateful. The noble Lord has never concealed his attitude to the Social Science Research Council; nor, indeed, to much that goes on under the name of social science or social studies, or whatever you might like to call it; but it seems to me— and I am bound to say this— somewhat odd that after this report has been produced he should wish still to pursue the matter, even in the moderate way that he did in opening this debate.
The Secretary of State was perfectly entitled to ask for advice about what action to take about this council or any other research council. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, said that he had a right to do this, and I agree with him; although to many people it looked, when this particular adviser, a most distinguished natural scientist, was chosen, as though the die was cast for the SSRC and that the kind of report would be produced that could legitimately lead the Secretary of State to dismember the council in a way that some people, at any rate, hoped would happen. As we now know, it has not happened and, contrary to the initial expectation, and coming from a person who cannot be accused of any bias in favour of the social sciences, certainly not previously expressed, it has come as a vindication of the SSRC and generally of the work that it has done, despite the many important criticisms that are made and the recommendations arising out of those criticisms.
The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said that in his view the report went some way towards giving the council a clean bill of health; but, judging from the tone of his remarks, the clean bill of health is still not all that clean. One might have hoped (as I hoped) that after this report had been produced the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, like other critics of the SSRC in the last year or two, would accept this individual verdict and do it generously. I have spoken about a certain amount of bias on the one side. I accept that there is a bias in me on the other side of the question. No doubt I am biased in 302 favour of this particular research council because as the noble Lord said when he opened the debate, 1, myself, was the first chairman of the council when it was first set up.
I am afraid that I did not altogether follow the criticisms that were made of the direction which it is alleged I gave to the council in the early days; but if the charge was that the funds were too widely spread in the earlier years, then I should want to go along with what the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said earlier and say that that was what was right, certainly at that time; and that to have been much more selective and to have picked out what were and are still called centres of excellence for specially favoured criticism would at that time have been wrong. At a time when after the Robbins Report had been produced there was not only rapid expansion in the universities generally but rapid expansion in social science departments in almost all universities, it would have been almost impossible for anyone, even if he wished to do so, to pick the winners out of all the new stables set up in that period in the 1960s. But against any wide spread of funds, if there was any— and we did, with very small resources, attempt to spread the funds— there was also an attempt to set up the new units and programmes of research which would lead to a concentration of funds rather than a dispersal.
The attitude which the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, has shown tonight, much more moderate than on some previous occasions, is certainly very welcome. The evidence he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, is printed among other evidence in this report, and it is, I think, very noticeable and remarkable that, of those whose evidence is printed, the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, is almost alone in his severe attack on this research council. I should like to remind the House of some of the things said by other people and bodies who were invited to give evidence and who did so and whose evidence is printed here. The Advisory Board for Research Councils, for instance, says that the SSRC provides an essential focus for these varied disciplines, particularly in the way it acts as a forum for peer judgment and review. The Confederation of British Industry says that the work sponsored by the SSRC is mainly concerned with fundamental issues which can contribute to teaching and applied research.For this reason in our view it is not susceptible to the customer-contractor principle because of the difficulty of identifying who is the ultimate customer".The CBI also says that the SSRC industrial relations research unit at Warwick is important to it and the fact that its work of necessity takes it into politically sensitive areas underlines the need for some independent source of funds.
Mr. Justice Gibson of the Law Commission refers to the need the Law Commission has for research to support the work that it does, and pays a compliment to the data that it has obtained from the Oxford Centre for Socio-legal Studies which is supported by the SSRC. He says that the withdrawal of financial support for this socio-legal research could have serious consequences for future law reform. The Royal Society speaks in a similar vein and asks that it should be accepted that a body making grants for research in the social science should be politically independent. 303 This is specially important for the SSRC since most of the topics within it are to some degree political.
Lastly of the bodies whose evidence I will bring to your attention there is the Trades Union Congress which says that direct intrusive or excessive governmental or commercial control over research and publication of social sciences would be generally unacceptable. It follows from the above that there is a strong case for the maintenance of institutions such as the Social Science Research Council, which functions in the important middle ground between academic interests and those of social and public policies and provides a system of allocation of funds which directly involves the academic interests and public policy makers in industry and elsewhere. These are just some of many bodies and individuals who take a very different line from the noble Lord who initiated the debate tonight. The noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, has, as we now know, accepted the great weight of the evidence that has come in in support of this research council and hence the need for social science research and for an independent body to support it, to deal or to help deal with some of the important, baffling and mysterious problems which are itemised in the report.
Unlike the noble Lord who introduced the debate, I am delighted by this report. Perhaps this could be expected. The final conclusions seem to me exactly right. There is no lack of criticism on detail, and I am sure that the SSRC will take up those criticisms and act on them wherever justified, as they seem to be to me in many cases. The noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, ends up by saying that there is one course of action which could not be easily corrected— which is the dismemberment or liquidation of the SSRC. That would be not only an act of vandalism, but as Professor Supple says, would have damaging consequences for the whole country and be one from which it would take a long time to recover. As he takes that general view— and this is his main advice to the Secretary of State— he says the SSRC should not he dismembered. Its budget should not be reduced in real terms below its 1982 level for a minimum period of three years and there should be no further inquiries into the SSRC for a minimum period of three years. I can only hope that the Secretary of State will pay attention to the report that he commissioned and particularly on the issues that I have just mentioned.
§ 8.51 p.m.
§ Lord Robbins
My Lords, I think we are all indebted, whatever our respective points of view, to the noble Lord, Lord 13eloff, for having initiated this debate while the reading of this distinguished report is still fresh in our minds. Most of all, our thanks are due to the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, who in my opinion has grasped, in a field with which he was not in the past, I fancy, so familiar, the peculiar difficulties of reseach in social sciences, the importance of its freedom from political influences and the desirability of sufficient subsidy being forthcoming from the Government quarters, and has insisted that the real value of the Government subsidy, whatever form it may take, should not diminish in the next three years. All these things, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, has mentioned, the purity of his style, his humour 304 and his forceful exposition, make his document enthralling to read. But I confess to some doubts about his administrative recommendations and the present functions of the SSRC.
Let no one in our restricted numbers think that I am about to propose the liquidation of the SSRC, but, to my way of thinking, I can conceive various improvements which would contribute to its efficiency.
At the present time the functions of the SSRC can be divided into two parts: first the award of graduate grants and fees for those who wish to pursue a second degree or a third degree in the studies concerned; and secondly, the general subsidisation of worthwhile research in the social sciences. The noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, argues that this combination of the two functions is appropriate. I have some doubts about this. Perhaps at this stage I may reveal my interest. As the noble Lord, Lord Annan, has said, I once was president of the British Academy at the time when it, too, had just received a regular Government subsidy. I was concerned in the reorganisation of the affairs of the Academy so as to spend this subsidy most expeditiously. At the London School of Economics I was for a quarter of a centry chairman of the Graduate School Committee. Thirdly, I have been chairman—I am no longer chairman now—of the international committee assembled by Lord Annan's predecessor at University College which is publishing over the next 30 or 40 years the collective works of Jeremy Bentham. In that respect, I am deeply grateful for the assistance which has been given by the SSRC.
Contrasting my experiences on the organisation of the British Academy in regard to research with the organisation which has been developed at the SSRC, I detect manifold differences. It may be a contribution to this debate if I elaborate them a little.
The British Academy has nothing to do with postgraduate awards for those who wish to enter graduate schools to pursue studies in humanistic subjects. In my experience as chairman of the graduate school at LSE, the DES performed very satisfactorily. In the days when economists and others received grants from the DES in all sorts of ways the arrangement worked perfectly satisfactorily. I am not absolutely sure that the quota allocations of the SSRC— at the beginning at any rate— have worked particularly well. To return to the British Academy, its functions therefore were much easier than that of the SSRC as it has developed. It had nothing to do— and I repeat, "it had nothing to do"— with post-graduate awards. Its sole function in this respect was to allocate research money other than those awards, in the various subjects for which it was responsible. At the time when the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, deliberated on these matters, I think there were 12 or 13 sections of the British Academy. Thus nowadays I think it might be said that one of the main functions of the British Academy is the scrutiny of the proposals in research which are put up to it by individuals, by groups of people in universities, and by groups of people collected from different universities. It helps to ensure that the radically inferior grants that the humanities get, in comparison with social studies, go as far as they can.
The allocation of this money is now one of the main businesses of the entire Academy. The requests 305 come in by a certain date every year: they are sorted out by the secretariat to eliminate obvious madness; they then go up to a grants committee, which is immediately under the Council of the Academy, and the grants committee will allocate to the various sections for exact scrutiny. I only know what is done in a limited number of sections with which I have had particularly intimate relations, but I have no doubt at all that the sections take seriously their job of awarding As, Bs, Cs and Omegas to the various applications. They then come up again to the grants committee, which passes them on to the council. Thus the entire body of the Academy ultimately is concerned with the allocation of this money.
This means that the business of allocation is much cheaper than it is elsewhere. The Fellows give their services for nothing; and the administrative staff covering all the applications and the other business of the Academy is very small. Since the burden of recommendation rests with the various sections, the members of which have been elected at various times to fellowship of the Academy, there is not likely to be any pronounced bias one way or the other in the recommendations of the sections. That seems to me to be a very superior arrangement—one which I would earnestly commend to the Social Science Research Council to embody in whatever form its establishment may take in the future.
The noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, argues positively in favour of the combination of the two functions— the general subsidising of superior research and the awards of post-graduate grants and fellowships. The noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, whom one must take very seriously in this matter, says that the quota system involves a certain amount of informal guidance from the centre and influence on the development of graduate schools. With great respect to the noble Lord, I would have thought that, in so far as graduate schools depend upon physical equipment in the case of social sciences, such as libraries, statistical machines, typists and people who can use computers, this certainly fell within the ambit of the University Grants Committee.
I myself would hope that in the future evolution of the Social Science Research Council it could turn itself into something more on the model of the British Academy and in no position on any of the main committees. I would hope that the Social Science Research Council could hand over to the Department of Education and Science the burdensome and costly business of assessing applications for people who wish to proceed in the respective subjects concerned to the graduate school. I should have thought that the mere mechanical award, given certain rules and testimonials of academic awards, was supremely a subject which was suitable for a rather down-to-earth Government department.
For the rest, I am bound to say that I have some lingering suspicion of the quota system. I think that, in the sphere of second and third degrees, competition is desirable. The young, would-be graduate should shop around according to the reputation, as he conceives it, of the teaching and advising If he is accepted by the school of his choice, then the DES, acting more or less mechanically, can do the rest. This arrangement seems to me to be conducive to the liberty of both students and universities.
306 Incidentally, the financing of second and third degrees is something which, hopefully, would give the people who were so privileged an advantage in income over the rest. Since Professor Prest suggested that amortisation of loans should not commence until a certain minimum income has been reached, I should have thought that this, at least, is a branch of university activity which could be financed by loans à la Prest.
I have spoken for too long, but I hope I have demonstrated to the noble Lord, Lord Young, whose work I have admired, that, on the whole, I am not hostile to the Social Science Research Council which he founded. But I certainly hope that it will divest itself of its more mechanical duties and so transform itself that it is advised by people of known repute, whose names may be published, in which case I think that some of the misapprehensions about the recent financing of social science, through the committee's instrumentality, would be reduced to a minimum.
§ 9.12 p.m.
§ Lord Vaizey
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Beloff for asking this Question tonight. There seems to be some doubt as to the pronunciation of the noble Lord's title. I can say that it is "Buluff" I have it from the horse's mouth. He is an old and valued colleague in the University of Oxford. I must say that the topic of social science has never been conducive to brevity, and that all too common apothegm applies to your Lordships' debate tonight. Nobody, not even an experienced man like the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, has so far spoken for less than 20 minutes. However, I shall do my best. I have not hitherto spoken for longer than 12 minutes in this House, but it is a subject which tends to rhetoric.
I read the report by the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, with great interest and with some knowledge of what he was writing about. It seems to me that there were two fundamental questions, one of which the noble Lord addressed. Other noble Lords, notably, Lord Annan, have spoken about the nature of the social sciences and the great difficulty about the use of the word "science" in this context, since we live in an age when the reputation of the natural sciences is so very great that the word "science used loosely in other contexts, must be very carefully handled. The noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, addressed himself to this on page 17 of his report, at paragraph 4.8, in which he asks whether sociology would take the place of physics in the natural sciences. He says:The great difference between social science and physical science, which is relevant here, is that social science is defined by its distinct subject matter, namely human beings and their behaviour in a social setting. Physical science does not define itself by reference to a single subject matter; but instead aims more than social science at general and comprehensive laws".With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, I do not think that goes far enough. I do not think that people who have not worked in the social sciences fully appreciate that social sciences are far more like the humanities than they are like the natural sciences. They are far more like history. They are in great part a continuous dialogue on the great questions which have perplexed humanity since the beginning of recorded time. One of the most important characteristics of those continuous and perplexing questions is that they 307 have no answers or, rather, no answers which are laid down for all time. They lead only to more questions.
§ Lord Young of Dartington
My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me to ask him in what way he thinks the natural sciences are different from the social sciences in the light of what he has just said about this continuing debate and the lack of firm answers? Surely the same thing applies to the natural sciences as to the so-called social sciences.
§ Lord Vaizey
My Lords, if the noble Lord would do me the honour of listening to the remainder of my speech, I shall be addressing myself to that very question. I had been speaking, I think, for only two and a half minutes and I was hoping to confine my remarks to 12, but unfortunately I shall have to take a little longer on this question. The particular characteristic of the social sciences to which the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, quite rightly has just drawn attention is that, just like the natural sciences—only, with respect, more so— they have this particular Popperian quality of more often proving a negative than proving a positive. It is not that they are concerned exclusively with humanity compared with the natural sciences It is because they are the kind of question, the kind of theory which is much more open fundamentally to question than has in recent times been the case with the natural sciences.
This is a relevant point to make, because it brings us to the topic which the noble Lord, Lord Annan, raised of social engineering. It is a fact that the nature of social engineering, or of social technology as it is sometimes called, is a very bad metaphor indeed. While, as a matter of historical fact, the discoveries in the natural sciences have led to artefacts in the mechanical world which have functioned and which can be seen to function— the connection between the discovery in Cambridge of the nature of the atom in the 1930s and the atom bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 is clear and obvious— there is great difficulty in tracing a similar path, a similar connection, between the work of scholars in the so-called social sciences and work in social engineering. It is necessarily, I think, much more tendentious, is necessarily much more political and is shot through with what Lord Rothschild refers to as "value judgments"— not a very happy introduction from the language of logical positives into the debate. Nevertheless, it is true that they are often concerned with questions of value.
One of the real doubts about the effectiveness of the social sciences must be a doubt as to whether or not their discoveries can truly be applied by policy makers in the way in which policy makers had hoped in the past they could be. I submit that this is a very serious and important question. Kant, the great philisopher, once said that out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made. There is a fundamental argument against social engineering and social technology of all kinds: that it tends in one particular collectivist direction. That is the particular reason why the social sciences, and social engineering which has been built upon the social sciences, have been charged by many people with a particular political bias.That is an inevitable charge.
308 To a very great degree, as the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, in a very informed and most helpful contribution from the Opposition Front Bench said quite clearly, people who take up the study of social problems are likely to come up with answers which require social action to solve those problems. That is a radical stance, and necessarily it is a left-wing stance. There is no point in denying it. If social scientists get up and deny that charge, it seems to me that they are not being true either to themselves or to their tradition.
I was very glad to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, talking about the work of the British Academy and the humanities. I am very pleased indeed that there is to be no humanities research council One can just imagine the kind of dim men and the statutory woman who would be put on such an extraordinary body No great contribution would it make either to the work which is done in the universities or, I may say, outside the universities. I claim that the reason for this is that the nature of the humanities and the nature of much of the work of the social sciences is inherently controversial Different people are bound to take different views. Quite often, there is not one answer. I believe that some of the attack levelled at my noble friend Lord Beloff was because he made this very point; that there is no one truth in the social sciences. It is a very real question as to whether public money should go to A or to B on grounds that they are excellent in themselves, rather than because they are likely to lead to what is an acceptable or workable conclusion.
I too have very grave doubts about much of the work that has been supported by the Social Science Research Council over the years— not because I believe such work should not be supported but because I wonder whether it ought to be supported on quite such a large scale and why it has so consistently shown one particular kind of bias rather than another. It would be very refreshing if one of the people in industrial relations— and I do not refer now to the Montague Burton professors such as Harold Kirkaldy, who used to be the professor at Cambridge, but specifically about the descendants of that very great and distinguished student of industrial relations, Allan Flanders— just one day breathed the faintest hint of criticism of one trade union or another in some respects; perhaps just a footnote to one of their few thousand heavily subsidised pages. That would do more to restore their scholarly reputation than anything that Lord Rothschild might say, or that might be said by the person who has been put in charge of the investigation on behalf of Lord Rothschild.
I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Robbins, that the recommendations in the Rothschild Report about graduate studentships and the support of graduate work are wholly wrong. It seems to me that these should be awarded on merit and that students should be perfectly free to search out whomever they wish to study under That is a perfectly elementary, mechanical function which used to be done by county councils. In recent years it has been done by the Department of Education and Science I see no reason why this could not be perfectly well done by a higher executive officer just reading off numbers from 309 examination results. I have very grave reservations too about the recommendations in the Rothschild report on the adoption of the American-style PhD programmes This is done in the name of efficiency, because the rates at which people do not complete graduate work in the social sciences has been subject to criticism. But a distinguished man though Lord Rothschild is, who is he to tell different universities how to organise their own graduate programmes? If that is not a matter for university autonomy, what is? When one turns to the subsidisation of research, it seems to me that if we were to be hostile— and I am very far from wishing to be hostile to the work of people who sit on these committees— there has been an element of "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours". This has been very marked in some of the work of the Social Science Research Council and in some of the things it has supported. I personally believe, now that the pioneering work has been done over the spread of social science faculties in the universities throughout the kingdom, that the time has come when this research money should be directed to the UGC for the UGC to allocate to different universities. I myself think that the SSRC programmes have not been sufficiently distinguished, nor on the whole made a sufficiently great contribution to scholarship to justify what is in fact a substantial bureaucratic empire, something which has become so substantial indeed that less than 20 years after it was set up they had to call in management consultants to see whether or not it could be improved. That is a grave indictment of what is, after all, an extremely small body.
If there were to be residual functions which needed to be financed from the centre I would be very tempted to hand it over to the most distinguished of the research councils, the Medical Research Council, because, after all, medicine bears some resemblance to the social sciences in that it is concerned to some degree with the fundamental sciences and to some degree with practical application. But, above all, the Medical Research Council's standing in the world of research is beyond question and beyond parallel. I would have thought that at this stage, after this enormous expansion of the social sciences in the past 20 years, the subject could do with a little bit of the rigour which has been applied over the years by the Medical Research Council to the activities of investigators in those particular fields.
One of the sociological laws I have learnt is that in the bureaucratic world nothing that exists will ever cease to exist So I fear that, whatever Lord Rothschild has said about the Social Science Research Council, its perpetuity could never conceivably be doubted by any realist for one moment.
§ 9.27 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of High Cross
My Lords, I am glad to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, for this opportunity to develop questions about the future of the Social Science Research Council. I may say it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey; it is a new experience for me and I rather enjoyed it. I certainly welcome his forthright criticisms of the SSRC and his candid comments about the limitations of economics, or, the noble Lord, Lord Annan, has correctly said, and I prefer, political economy, which 310 we both have spent some large part of our lives studying.
I want to suggest that we should take more seriously the need to justify the spending of every penny of taxpayers' money, other people's money, on purposes which we may personally greatly favour but which are not always of proven public benefit and which in any event might be financed through voluntary sources. The Rothschild Report tells us that this year £ 460 million will be spent by five research councils And I would say that if all this expenditure is as dubious as I regard the £ 20 million spent by the SSRC, there is splendid room here for large economies.
We have heard that the author of the Rothschild Report relies on what he calls the "generally favourable evidence" of some 300 academics Yet the samples he quotes, with very few exceptions, are less evidence than straightforward statements of opinion, and there are no asterisks against the names to indicate which witnesses have been paid for their good opinions. Among the economists, sociologists and historians whose names I immediately recognise the vast majority are at least as biased in favour of Government expenditure as have been the leftist succession of chairmen of the SSRC, from the noble Lord, Lord Young, in 1965 to the present incumbent.
May I, therefore, set an example by declaring my own interests, as general director of the Institute of Economic Affairs From its formation in 1957 the trustees decided, as a matter of deliberate policy, neither to seek nor to accept so-called public money which is, after all, private money taken from people's pockets by Government decision It seems to me that we can learn from the universities which have recently woken up to discover that there can be no true independence so long as you are dependent upon political patronage. Although I shall have few friends for saying so, I think that we should not expect to take public money and run away with it.
Whatever may be said of the natural sciences, there are special reasons why taxpayers' money should not be conscripted into financing research in the controversial arena of social studies, to adopt the terminology of the noble Lord, Lord Annan. Thus in political economy even such solid sounding concepts as capital equipment, or housing, or money itself, do do not depend on their objective properties but on subjective valuations, beliefs and behaviours. Indeed, I would argue that one of the chief advantages of the open market mechanism is precisely that it enables conflicts of values to he resolved by the widest conceivable consensus of people as consumers, workers and investors. But, so long as many other so-called social scientists take a different view, it follows in my opinion that research and dissemination of ideas in social studies is best conducted by competing organisations supported from widely dispersed private sources of finance.
By all means let the Government encourage charity by tax concessions, although I would personally favour fewer concessions and much lower rates of tax. But why, for example, should the National Institute of Economic and Social Research draw over 60 per cent. of its income from the SSRC and the Treasury when many economists would join me in holding its resulting influence to blame for a great deal of our inflationary troubles?
311 Having at one time put all their money on the NIESR as the chief source of macro-economic forecasting, it is true that the Government and the SSRC now support a half-a-dozen such oracles. I believe that it is an improvement. I think that if you are going to gamble on the economic Grand National, it is better to hedge your bets. But I think that it would be better still to turn academics away from what I regard as the contaminated public feeding trough. They believe that their macro-forecasts are of great value. Very well, let them tap the many sources of pure spring water to fertilise their researches Where they claim their work will yield fruit, let them appeal for support to the voracious fruit-eaters in business, the trade unions and Government departments. If they have more far-fetched projects, there is always the Rowntree Trust.
On the other hand, where research promises little prospect of fruit or of early fruit, it should take its chance in appealing to the large universe of charities, trusts and private benefactors. An incidental advantage of this market approach would be that more economists might come to see the merits of lower taxation so that money could fructify in the pockets of potential donors.
Glancing through the endless list of researches financed by the SSRC with other people's money, anyone outside Militant Tendency would find that they are often pretentious or partisan, and some are both Thus £ 36,059 went on a study of:Social and attitudinal characteristics of supporters of right-wing movements in Britain",which the author amplifies as:the attitudes of those holding right-wing and racialist viewpoints.I could not help wondering as I read it what would be the prospects for a rival research project into the attitudinal similarities between those holding Left-wing and fascist viewpoints. There are many other projects that are on the more harmless, trivial level of studies of rabbits and their habits. Many of them cost a few hundred pounds and could be well afforded from the pockets of any keen researcher.
One of the troubles is that the very existence of the SSRC has encouraged the art of grantsmanship which diverts attention into fashionable, often highly mathematical, research known to be favoured by the grant-giving establishment. Does anyone really suppose that Adam Smith would have been favoured by a contemporary SSRC?— or Ricardo or Keynes, let alone Hayek or Friedman in their earlier days? Yet all those have made seminal contributions to economic understanding, the like of which the SSRC has nothing to show despite having spent hundreds of millions of taxpayers' pounds Before concluding, I must ask the Minister to tell us how the Government propose to deal with the scandal revealed in postgraduate education on which the SSRC spends nearly half of its budget. Of some 2,370 social science students registering for research degrees in 1973, almost 60 per cent had not completed their Ph.Ds after six years. I suggest that if grants were replaced by student loans, we would have less of this time-wasting nonsense. I welcomed the advocacy of my noble friend Lord 312 Robbins for the reform away from grants towards student loans
But I want to conclude with the most characteristically protective recommendation of Lord Rothschild's non-radical, conventional though well-written report. He says that there should be no further inquiries into the SSRC for at least three years. I would agree, subject to adding that during that period the council should be wound up. Let no new grants be made and let existing commitments be phased out. To hopeful new applicants I suggest that the SSRC send a plaque for their study walls inscribed with the advice of Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory before the war:We haven't got any money so we must use our brains.
§ 9.38 p.m.
§ Lord Swann
My Lords, I think we are all agreed that this is a most unusual report It is unusual because it is written by an unusual man, and by him alone It could certainly never have been written by a committee for, after all— and as a biologist I have always relished this— is not a camel a horse designed by a committee? It is only necessary to read the first page of the report and then Chapter 4, where the nature of the social sciences is explained with great elegance, to realise why Governments find them baffling and confusing and, above all, irritating.
Governments want quick, plausible solutions to the problems of the day. The social sciences, on the other hand, offer conclusions that are uncertain and qualified and which can seldom do more, as the report says, than clarify the options. To make things yet more annoying to society at large and to Governments, they do so in a way that often seems to defy common sense. But the Government and society would do well to ponder the remark of no less a man than Einstein, quoted on the very first page of the report, namely, that,Common sense is a deposit of prejudice laid down in the mind before the age of eighteen".As the report makes clear, the natural sciences are not subject to this common sense backlash because for the most part they are just too abstruse. But, of course, it was not always so. One wonders what sort of furore there would have been if Galileo, Darwin or many other great men of the past had been supported on Government money. The Secretary of Education, had there been one, would have been under the most intense pressure to do something drastic about them. The social sciences have a long way to go before they escape such pressures, and, in their very nature, perhaps they never can But none of this means that we do not need the insights that the social sciences can give, uncertain as they may be.
I myself became acutely aware of this in my time at the BBC because common sense tells many people that violence and sex on the screen rapidly corrupts society. Such research as there is, on the other hand, suggests that things are not at all so simple. More recently I have taken over the chairmanship of a Government committee concerned with the education of ethnic minorities, and, depending on who you are and your political leanings, common sense tells you that the poor performance of some minorities, especially blacks, in contrast to the relatively high achievement 313 of most Asian minorities—not all—is due to racial prejudice and discrimination in the schools, or on the part of employers, or that it is a matter of IQ, or of family influences, or social deprivation, or cultural and social background, or a whole host of other things. In reality the problems almost certainly arise from a complex tangle of many of these factors, but which ones? One is most unlikely to get to the bottom of the matter by listening only to opinions.
When I came afresh to the task, I hoped and expected that at least some answers would be available from social science research, and indeed they are. But the e is not very much relevant research, and of what the, e is all too little of is of the highest calibre. Some moreover is written in language so jargon laden or, worse still, because jargon is sometimes necessary, in such impenetrable prose as to defy comprehension. It is my unhappy lot to have to read a good deal of this stuff nowadays, and I want to offer you just one quote from a paper by a sociologist of some apparent responsibility in a distinguished British university. I could have given you many more, but one will do at this hour of the night:Not only is this illustrative of the kind of position and explanation associated with a social pathological perspective, but it possesses the effect of opening and legitimating a sub-textual discourse that reinforces a pathological conception and approach towards the study of under achievement".What a pity that George Orwell is no longer with us. In his splendid essay on Politics and the English Language, he described just such a piece of prose:A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up the details".Recommendation 24 of the report should indeed be taken to heart, and not only by the SSRC but by social scientists in general. The poor quality of all too much social science research is a theme that recurs in the report, and especially in the quotations from written evidence in Chapter 9. I am not in fact unduly concerned about this. Any natural scientist, and I am one, talking off the record will admit that the proportion of really good research in his subject is very small, and I believe this is inevitable. One can never predict who will make the major advances, and every subject needs underpinning by lesser men. Second rank research is seldom worthless, and when it is, its perpetrators are gradually squeezed out of the system, not least by the SSRC, which has clearly done a great deal to raise standards.
The report examines the Government's suggestion that more social science should be funded on a customer-contractor basis, and concludes, quite rightly in my view, that there is little scope for such a change. The customer, in so far as he can be identified, is too often society in general, which means, inevitably, the Government. Who else, I wonder, will really support much research in, for instance, the problems that beset me in my committee on the education of ethnic minorities?
The report also concludes, rightly again in my view, that the Government, directly, are seldom a desirable funding agent for research that by its very nature almost always carries political overtones. The committee also endorses the system of peer review by committees of experts, even though it thinks there are too many of them. That must be right. It is in general 314 the only way that quality can be assessed and standards raised.
But it leaves me with an uneasy feeling: committees, by their very nature, express the majority view What happens if the majority are so sure that their view is right that they reject the dissident approach from which, historically, all the great advances have stemmed? I recall the birth of molecular biology in Cambridge when I was a young science don there just after the war, the most significant biological advance, beyond any doubt, of this century. Perutz, Crich and Watson, the Noble prizewinning trio years later, were not swept into the university system as they should have been; they were supported only because one man, Sir Harold Himsworth, then secretary of the Medical Research Council, almost entirely on his own initiative, had a hunch that they were going to revolutionise biology. They survived only because another man, Sir Lawrence Bragg, of the Cavendish Physics Lab., not a biology lab, thought the same and gave them help and house room I believe that any system of supporting research must have a few pots of gold which some wise individuals can use to support young men and women whom they think have real quality, even though the prevailing orthodoxy is uninterested.
I note that the Heyworth Report of 1956, recommending the establishment of a Social Science Research Council, concluded that the danger of "spurious orthodoxies" was passed, something that the Clapham Committee of 1946 had earlier used as an argument against such a body. I would be less sure, even today. Orthodoxies are part and parcel of intellectual life and research and I do not doubt that there are still plenty about— not spurious perhaps, but certainly dubious.
I wish to mention the alleged political bias in some social sciences, most notably, perhaps, sociology. It is a matter of no concern, surely, that sociologists should, privately, be left of centre, or indeed right of centre. Before the war, many distinguished natural scientists were decidedly left of centre, but it in no way distorted their research. On the other hand, there must be concern if private political views do distort research, and the report, as others have commented, has actually requested the SSRC to investigate one alleged instance. I know nothing of that particular case, but whether or not it turns out that there is anything in the allegation, I suspect there is cause for concern elsewhere.
Certainly in my broadcasting days I was dismayed when one university group produced some research on the media (unusual, as a matter of fact), potentially valuable, but ruined it— there is no other word for it— and ruined its reception by broadcasters by the blatant political slant they gave it. Even so, I am not over-worried. These follies tend to be self-correcting, and even the natural sciences are not immune. Much Soviet research, most notably in genetics, was ludicrously distorted for many years by Marxist orthodoxy, but in due course a combination of international ridicule and systematic ignoring by peers produced a change of heart. And so I suggest it will do in the social sciences. Meanwhile I cannot think that a Government who have sent the Argentines packing in the Falklands, and who pride themselves on taking a firm line in a host of other areas, need really be frigh- 315 tened of such a little mouse as periodic political bias in academic sociological research.
I want to say only one more thing. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild, has done us a noteworthy service. He has analysed the weaknesses of 316 the research council, which are not so very numerous, and demonstrated its merits, which are considerable. He leaves me convinced that for the Government to dismantle the Social Science Research Council, or even to diminish it, would be doctrinaire, foolish, and perverse.
§ 9.51 p.m.
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
My Lords, I apologise for not including my name on the list of speakers, but, quite genuinely, I did not know that I was going to speak until I had actually heard the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, said that he was the only non-academic to take part in the debate this evening— but here is another one, who, I think, is perhaps a little lower than Lord Ardwick. He, I understand, went to Manchester Grammar School, and in the working-class of Liverpool he would be considered to be an academic. I left an elementary school at 14 and became a plumber. Ultimately I became the leader of Liverpool City Council, and then I was very honoured to become the chairman and the leader of Merseyside County Council. I also became the chairman of the North-West Economic Planning Council, and besides all those posts somebody, somewhere, thought that I should also become a member of the Social Science Research Council. I do not know why. It is an even greater mystery to me why a Minister of the party opposite reappointed me a member of that august body. But I thought that it would be a good lesson in education for myself, and I mixed with many academics.
The Standing Orders of the House recommend us all not to defend or speak on behalf of a body of which we are a member, and so I have no intention at all of speaking on behalf of the SSRC. I speak, I hope, as a representative of the ultimate customer who is referred to in many parts of the report—
§ Lord Sandys
My Lords, I think that it is the custom for your Lordships to speak on your own behalf.
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
Well, my Lords, may I say that I speak as an ultimate customer of the Social Science Research Council, not a representative of it? By "ultimate customer "I mean somebody who has been elected to be responsible for looking at, and trying to solve, some of the problems which concern the Social Science Research Council: crime, poverty, race riots, drug addiction, urban deprivation, unemployment, and the state of the economy. If anyone wants a lesson in trying to gauge the necessary amount of resources to meet those problems, I recommend him to go and live in and try to manage a local authority such as Merseyside. He will then realise that perhaps the problems there are a little greater than those problems that face the academic world. When I came into the Chamber tonight I expected to listen to what was best in the academic world of our nation; instead I have listened academic tearing another another academic to pieces, and to academics ridiculing one another. It was almost personal abuse. I have never believed that that was the best of our academic world. But it has happened; it has happened tonight.
The report contains the evidence of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. I make no pretence to being a clever person. I think that I have a little common sense, and that I should be able to judge between the abilities of one person and those of another person, or between 318 one group of persons and another group of persons, all practising in the same field. I wish to say, quite seriously, that the intellectual level that we have achieved here tonight in the Chamber was certainly no better than the intellectual level that I have heard achieved among academics in the Social Science Research Council. So if I were among the academics in this Chamber I should not go too strongly on the idea of condemning other academics and ridiculing them. I may be wrong, of course, and I stand here willing to be contradicted, but I have no doubt that the quotation given by the noble Lord, Lord Swann, came from a person who was trained in our universities.
Some of the problems that face local politicians in places like Merseyside come from the demolition of blocks of flats which have proved unsatisfactory to some people but are eminently satisfactory in other parts of the country, and even in other parts of the city; and I have no doubt at all that those blocks of flats were designed by people trained in universities. The universities of this land have known about the social problems that I have mentioned, and have lived alongside them— and in Liverpool we have one of the best universities in the land, I am told— but they have made no contribution that I know of (they have certainly made none in my hearing) to the solution of those problems.
Labourers in the streets of Liverpool knew in the 'thirties that Liverpool was on the down-path towards ultimate depression. They knew that because of what was happening in the economy. I do not ever remember any university coming out with any learned thesis about solutions matching up to that kind of problem; and if anybody has let the nation down in the solution of our social problems, then it is in regard to the economic life of this nation.
Let me say this about the Social Science Research Council. I believe—I do not profess to know, but I believe— that the fundamental political principle behind the setting up of the Social Science Research Council was a general feeling that following the war, and beginning with the decline in our economic affairs, because of the social problems that were becoming manifest we needed an organisation to look into the subject and to propose solutions along the way.
I think, quite frankly, that we have not done all that we could do in providing those solutions. Evidently the problems are still there. There must be a reason, and I believe the reason lies inside Parliament. We talk about dismembering the Social Science Research Council, or we talk about putting their responses out to the market forces, or carrying out research where somebody finds a need for research and is willing to pay for it. What happens to the young kid in Liverpool who is now glue sniffing? Who pays for the research into that social problem? That can be applied to every social problem that exists.
There is no question of applying market forces to the examination of social problems for which the economy is responsible, and for which ultimately the Government are responsible. What happened was that the Government of this day— and I believe it was a Labour Government, but it does not make any difference— set up an organisation which was to study seriously the 319 major social problems arising out of our economic affairs in order to get a solution, and then left it alone.
The real problem with research is that the research is not carried out to its ultimate, logical conclusion. We need a Social Science Research Council, or, preferably, we need an organisation for social studies, because I mistrust the word "science". Of the notable contributions that science has made to our modern life, most of them have been foolish and most of them have been irrelevant to a decent life. If you really examine the contributions that scientists have made to our affairs you will see that they have not really contributed to a better life on many occasions.
The difficulty in dealing with social problems is that once a study has been made nobody is strong enough to say, "Relate that to modern problems and let us solve them on the basis of the study". The Social Science Research Council has published the new paper, The Inner City in Context No university ever did that. No university ever carried out a really serious study of the relationship between local and central Government, which will shortly pose tremendous problems for this nation following the collapse of devolution. No university did that. The Social Science Research Council has done it, and what does it want now? If needs, and the nation needs, the Government to sit up and take notice; to get somebody to co-operate with the SSRC and the academics who carried it out and then to translate it into political action If we do not, we will have wasted our resources on the SSRC. You cannot stop now, because one thing that the council has done is to highlight some of the social problems which can be solved. If you dismember or abolish it now, then gone is the chance of solving them.
Nobody in the debate tonight has mentioned the ultimate consumer. I should not have spoken if the academics had bothered themselves about the fundamental requirements of the social services and the problems to be resolved by research. I should not have bothered at all. But I had to do so because I know what it is like and I know the kind of social problems that there are in Merseyside and the North East and in North East Wales and I know that they will come out of this depression, when the rest of the country is going to boom again, considerably worse off than when they went in.
That is a major social problem and on the solution of that depends all the other aspects of social life in this country. If we do not get our economic life right, then we shall not get our social life right; and we shall not get the inner cities problem solved. And what are the politicians doing about it? They are having a debate on whether or not we should keep an organisation like the SSRC whose responsibility is to research these problems and to come up with the answers. It will be a crime against the Humanities, against the academic life of this nation, if the academic world in this nation cannot come up with a solution perhaps to reorganise the SSRC into another body, perhaps to rename it, perhaps to give it more resources But to dismember it will be disloyal to the nation's academic 320 profession and, worse still, disloyal to the nation itself.
1 had the biggest shock of my life when I read the evidence by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. I do not think that those remarks, talking about the level of membership of the SSRC, were justified, were Christian or in line with what I consider to be the professed ethics of the academic world. It got almost to personal abuse. I have a duty to say this: from my knowledge as an ordinary human being, the people on the Social Science Research Council work hard to achieve their objective— as hard as anybody else. I think that an apology is due to them for the words said about them. I think that it was wrong and does not contribute a jot to the betterment of the academic world of this nation.
§ 10.3 p.m.
§ Lord Sandys
My Lords, I think we have had a long and vigorous debate this evening. This Unstarred Question, for which we are indebted to my noble friend Lord Beloff, has lasted longer than any of the 2½hour debates and proves again the value of the method of this particular form of debate in this House. My noble friend Lord Beloff has asked what action the Government propose to take in respect of Lord Rothschild's review of the Social Science Research Council and has pressed for a response, as have several other noble Lords, who have spoken this evening. I fear my response tonight will be possibly one of the briefest of the contributions, but perhaps no worse for that. Your Lordships, however, must be aware that when my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science announced in a Written Answer in the other place on the 18th May that Lord Rothschild's report would be published the next day, he also stated that he wanted the report's findings and recommendations to be openly and widely discussed. That is precisely what your Lordships have done this evening.
My right honourable friend has specifically invited various bodies to send their views on the report to his department's science branch. Among those bodies are the University Grants Committee— which was referred to this evening— the National Advisory Body for Local Authority— Higher Education, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics. Beyond that, it is open to any interested person or body to submit their views to the department if they wish to do so and such views will all be considered carefully, provided that they are received by 19th July, as this is the date which my right honourable friend has specified as being the closing date for the consultation period.
I hardly need impress upon your Lordships that my right honourable friend attaches considerable importance to this consultation period, as he undertook at the outset of this exercise that the Government's consideration of Lord Rothschild's findings and recommendations would take place in the light of such public comment as may emerge following the publication of the report. Therefore I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, will accept that it is still too early for Her Majesty's Government to respond to his Question 321 in any detail. Indeed, I have noted down a large number of his questions this evening, but I regret that it will not be possible for me to give a reply and I hope that in the context of what I have said earlier he will appreciate the reasons.
The comments received, together with the recommendations, will have an important part in formulating the Government's response at an early date. I recall earlier this afternoon that my noble friend Lord Cockfield, said that the phrase "in the near future", defied definition. I fear I can add nothing to that particular comment except to say this: it is quite apparent from the drafting of the report and the excellent form it takes that there will be early and valuable discussion upon it and that my right honourable friend will consider it in the light of the undertaking that he gives on the very first page. I remind your Lordships of what he says in his closing remarks:My colleagues and I, in considering those recommendations addressed to the Government, will study carefully the comments received".I was particularly glad to listen to every one of the major contributions this evening. The note which struck home so warmly was recommendation 24, commented upon by the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, and almost all your Lordships, including the noble Lord, Lord Swann: the reference to that evergreen volume by Sir Ernest Gowers, Plain Words. I have in the course of the morning been looking at that volume. It is one of the books that I keep ever constantly beside me on my desk. In this particular context, having listened to that remarkable comment by the noble Lord, Lord Swann, and his quotation, we shall find this volume particularly valuable, as indeed the report itself is.