£49m funding boost for urgent social and economic challenges

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Announcing six new research centres to tackle critical social and economic issues, from evolving policing, to social care and intergenerational inequality.

The £49 million boost will benefit our understanding of these challenges and how best to make a difference across key areas including:

  • trade policy
  • social care
  • policing
  • early years maths education
  • connecting generations
  • digital technologies.

These awards are being made following a highly competitive process run by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which was open to new research ideas from all areas of social science.

ESRC research centres are major strategic investments that take forward an ambitious research agenda to deliver real societal and economic impact. Also, to provide robust research evidence to support government decision making.

Tackling critical societal issues

The new centres, led by universities from across the UK, will propel forward our understanding of and response to a range of challenging social and economic issues including:

  • understanding the challenges, opportunities and impact for the UK’s trade policy and free trade agreements
  • addressing the urgent need for new and accessible evidence on care in the UK including topics such as experiences of care, inequalities in care and workforce change
  • understanding how vulnerable groups interact with the police and the way policing can evolve to tackle harms such as exploitation and mental illness
  • transforming understanding of children’s mathematics learning during the early years and designing effective educational activities to improve skills and understanding
  • exploring how changes in our population, society and economy influence the connections and inequalities between generations
  • exploring the interplay between social change and digital technologies to create the capabilities and capacity to drive inclusive and sustainable futures.

The social fabric of our country

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser said:

Social science research is central to our efforts to build back better from the pandemic. The latest ESRC research centres will focus on some of the key societal issues to be addressed, such as social care, policing, inequalities between generations and the impact of digital technologies, and will help maintain the UK’s position at the forefront of social science research.

Professor Alison Park, interim executive chair of ESRC said:

We are delighted to announce the funding for these six centres, which demonstrate the excellence, breadth and relevance of social science research. They will all bring a fresh social science perspective on many issues of major public and policy interest and will provide robust research evidence that can be used by policy makers and practitioners.

Not only are research centres major strategic investments which have significant economic and societal impact, but they also add value by increasing research infrastructure, building capacity, encouraging interdisciplinary working and enabling research collaboration in the UK and internationally to bring about change.

UK-wide centres

Based across the UK, the centres will be located at:

  • University of Bristol
  • Loughborough University
  • The University of Sheffield
  • University of Southampton
  • University of Sussex
  • University of York.

Many will be working as part of larger collaborative teams, bringing in expertise and support from partners as well as other UK and international universities.

The Centre for Care based at the University of Sheffield is also receiving £1.5 million of additional co-funding through a partnership with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).

Professor Martin Knapp, NIHR’s social care spokesperson and director of the NIHR School for Social Care Research, said:

Social care, and arrangements for people who need or provide care, are under unprecedented pressure. The new Centre for Care, which NIHR is co-funding, will bring together researchers from a range of disciplines with people who need care, carers, care workers and others to undertake vital research, providing much needed evidence to enhance wellbeing and improve understanding of care.

Successful projects

The successful projects are outlined below.

The Centre for Inclusive Trade Policy, led by Professor L Alan Winters and Professor Michael Gasiorek at the University of Sussex

ESRC contribution £8.22 million

The Centre for Inclusive Trade Policy (CITP) will undertake innovative, interdisciplinary research that aims to provide evidence to support the development of the UK’s future modern trade policy.

It will consider how the UK will configure free trade agreements, imported food regulations and climate policies now it has sovereignty over its trade policy.

It will understand the major challenges and opportunities faced by the world trading system such as:

  • COVID-19
  • trade wars
  • disruptive digital technology
  • the rise of China
  • the impact on local labour markets and UK productivity.

Its precept is that trade policy should be inclusive in both policy formation and outcomes and focuses on four dimensions of inclusiveness:

  • geography
  • political domains
  • society
  • generations.

Led by the University of Sussex, with expertise from:

  • University of Nottingham
  • University of Strathclyde
  • Queen’s University Belfast
  • University of Cambridge
  • Cardiff University.

International co-investigators are based at:

  • the European University Institute
  • Tel Aviv University
  • University of Turin
  • Georgetown University.

The Centre for Care, led by Professor Sue Yeandle

ESRC contribution £8.23 million

The centre will address the need for new, accessible evidence on the urgent issues facing social care. It will ask how things could be done differently in social care for the benefit of those giving and receiving care. It will explore younger and older people’s experience of care, how that experience is different and why including issues of inequality. It will also look at care worker recruitment, employment and working conditions and how technology might support care.

£1.5 million of additional co-funding for the Centre for Care has been provided through a partnership with the NIHR.

The centre is a multidisciplinary partnership working with:

  • academics
  • sector partners
  • agencies
  • public policy experts
  • people who need or provide care.

Led by the University of Sheffield in collaboration with:

  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Kent
  • University of Oxford
  • London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • Carers UK
  • National Children’s Bureau
  • Social Care Institute for Excellence
  • Office for National Statistics.

Vulnerability and Policing Futures Research Centre, co-directed by Professor Charlie Lloyd and Professor Adam Crawford

ESRC contribution £8.23 million

At this time of unprecedented change to public services, police workloads are increasingly at the frontline of managing the risk of harm to the most vulnerable in society. This centre will understand how vulnerabilities interact and shape demand for policing, including:

  • exploitation by county lines drug networks
  • online child sexual exploitation
  • domestic abuse
  • modern slavery
  • mental illness
  • homelessness.

The centre will explore how the police, public service providers (such as health, social care, and housing) and other partner organisations can collaborate to prevent and respond to changing vulnerabilities and inequalities.

Jointly led by the Universities of York and Leeds, with expertise from:

  • Durham University
  • Lancaster University
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of Manchester
  • University of Sheffield
  • University College London
  • Monash and Temple universities in Australia and the US
  • the Police Foundation
  • a network of 38 regional, national, and international project partners.

Centre for Early Mathematics Learning (CEML), led by Professor Camilla Gilmore

ESRC contribution £8.23 million

Improving the quality of early mathematics education has been recognised as a priority in the UK and around the world. CEML will transform our understanding of children’s mathematics learning during the early years and equip educators with the knowledge, tools, and confidence to help children succeed. CEML will take an interdisciplinary approach and learn from best practices internationally.

Based at:

  • Loughborough University
  • University of Bristol
  • Ulster University
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Oxford
  • University of York
  • University College London.

The Connecting Generations Centre (CGC), led by Professor Jane Falkingham

ESRC contribution £8.26 million

The Connecting Generations Centre will strengthen the evidence base on population change and fairness between generations. The centre will explore how issues are affected by population and generational changes, such as:

  • living standards
  • jobs and pay
  • housing costs
  • taxes and benefits
  • work-life balance
  • caring responsibilities.

It will study inequality in people’s opportunities and experiences, with the aim of improving the lives of individuals, families, communities now and in the future. The centre’s members will do this by examining the impacts of:

  • gender
  • age
  • ethnicity
  • socio-economic background
  • education
  • geographical region.

Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic make the centre’s work of understanding existing inequalities and foreseeing emerging inequalities even more urgent. The centre will work to understand the different impacts of COVID-19 and Brexit within and across generations, including how the ‘traditional’ stepping stones to adulthood will have been affected by the pandemic.

To provide this crucial research evidence, the ‘Connecting Generations’ partnership brings together experts from:

  • University of Southampton
  • University of St Andrews
  • University of Stirling
  • University of Oxford
  • the Resolution Foundation
  • the Office for National Statistics
  • National Records of Scotland.

Centre for ‘Sociodigital’ Futures, led by Professor Susan Halford

ESRC contribution £7.84 million

Digital technologies, devices and data are an integral part of contemporary societies in a ‘sociodigital’ world. This centre will investigate what ‘sociodigital’ futures are under way and how we might drive these towards fair and sustainable ways of life.

It will explore how ‘sociodigital’ futures are made through the interactions between:

  • everyday practices of care, consumption, learning, organising, and moving people as well as goods
  • key digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, high performance networks, and augmented and virtual reality.

The centre will deliver an interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral programme of research and capacity building to better understand and shape digital technology futures in the making.

Based at the University of Bristol, in collaboration with:

  • University of the Arts London
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Birmingham
  • Goldsmiths
  • University of London
  • Lancaster University.

The centre will work with six strategic partners in industry, government and civil society and an international network of universities in:

  • Australia
  • Italy
  • Norway
  • South Africa
  • USA.

Further information

The ESRC centres competition call took place between April 2020 and March 2021. Research centre funding is aimed at experienced research leaders who require extended support for:

  • research groups
  • inter-institutional research networks
  • project-linked programmes
  • medium-to-large surveys
  • other infrastructure or methodological developments
  • any related larger-scale projects.

The centres will be funded, by ESRC, up to £49 million at 80% full economic cost for five years launching in January 2022 (except for the Centre for Care which began its work from 1 November 2021), with the future option to apply for follow on centres transition and legacy funding for up to a further 10 years.

£1.5 million of additional co-funding for the Centre for Care has been provided through a partnership with the NIHR.

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