Research leadership in the social sciences

Developing social science leadership capability is one of ESRC’s strategic priorities. The funding landscape is going through a period of rapid change, and we want to support social scientists to take advantage of the opportunities that are now available to them.

Why we are investing in research leadership

The changing landscape presents a specific leadership challenge for the social sciences. Designing, leading and delivering, and simply working within large, complex team-based research projects demand skills that have often not been required or incentivised within the social sciences.

This leadership challenge has implications for:

  • how the social sciences think about researcher development more generally
  • how it nurtures and sustains intellectual curiosity and creativity throughout the full professional journey
  • how it cultivates and rewards ambassadors for the social sciences
  • how it might combine a fresh approach to talent management and building research leadership capacity with UKRI commitments relating to equality, diversity and inclusion

What we are doing

We commissioned Professor Matthew Flinders from the University of Sheffield to undertake an independent review of research leadership within the social sciences to inform thinking in this area and address the leadership challenge. The Fit for the future: research leadership matters report was published in 2020.

Following the publication of the report, two evidence gaps were identified:

  • a clear articulation of what good leadership looks like and how this relates to different stages in career
  • an appraisal of those interventions that are most effective in developing the skills and experience required for good research leadership across the life course

ESRC has undertaken further work to address these gaps, outlined below.

Rapid evidence assessment

A rapid evidence assessment was undertaken by CFE Research on behalf of ESRC synthesised practice in other sectors to inform ESRC’s understanding of effective leadership at different career stages, pointing to interventions that have proved effective in other contexts.

Professional development programme for  postdoctoral fellows

We have commissioned Sealey Associates to develop and pilot a new professional development programme for two cohorts of ESRC’s postdoctoral fellows. The aims are to develop leadership capability, promote engagement with policy, and provide career development for social scientists immediately post-PhD.

Support for mid-career and senior research leaders

We commissioned Professor Flinders to undertake a scoping project to explore how ESRC can support research leaders at the mid and senior career stages.

The findings can be found in the project report on supporting research leaders in the social sciences.

We will be using this evidence to inform our strategy for how we support leadership development across all career stages, from the postgraduate to professorial.

We are in the process of commissioning an ESRC Research Leaders Network to pilot approaches to support and incentivise mid-career and senior social scientists with their leadership practice.

Last updated: 22 November 2023

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