It's 50 years since the Economic and Social Research Council was established. In that time it has resisted outside pressure from many directions, and has brought economic and social science to bear on the most important issues of the day.

By David Walker

The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) was born in the full flush of the 1960s' push to modernise Britain. Higher education was expanding, the Fulton Report had recommended sweeping changes in Whitehall, and the political parties had come together in the belief that mobilising knowledge through social research would bring business, government and society into the brave new world.

Its tasks, then as now, were to fund postgraduate training and stimulate research, although the balance between the two has shifted. So has the ratio between 'directed' spending (where the research council steers the topics and priorities for investigation) and 'responsive' spending (where universities and other higher education institutions and researchers propose topics for research), with more money now going to projects and programmes regarded as ESRC themes and priorities.

Ironically, what the ESRC does now is closer to the vision of the SSRC's first chair, Michael Young, than the original spending pattern of the 1960s. He favoured more directed research and fewer free-standing ideas from academics, and thought the SSRC should itself be a research institute rather than channelling money to universities.

The SSRC spent most of its budgets in specific subject areas for its first two decades. In 1967, the line-up was economics, sociology, politics, management and psychology, followed by social anthropology, education and statistics. Early focuses were on: how deprivation is concentrated in particular areas, educational priority areas and urban deprivation; human relations at work and the sociology of management; and, from as early as 1967, investment in data resources. In the 1970s, the SSRC joined with the Department of Health and Social Services on a programme of research into whether disadvantage is transmitted through the generations. Social science tended to say no. There is much fluidity in and out of low incomes. But the senior Tory Sir Keith Joseph, who became education secretary in 1981, had strong views to the contrary.

The SSRC had made enemies on the political right and Joseph ordered inquiries into the running of its industrial relations unit at Warwick University, which was accused of Marxist bias. As a centre for thinking about trade union issues, it was a natural Tory target. But in addition Joseph doubted the idea of the SSRC itself. On his behalf, Lord Rothschild took extensive evidence and reported that while the administrative costs of the SSRC could be cut, social science research was under-financed in the UK.

Responding to these pressures, the SSRC relaunched in 1984 as the ESRC, its headquarters moved out of London, in common with the other research councils, and it became more attuned to users of research in business and government. Postgraduate training was also reorganised. The ESRC's survival was confirmed in 1984, when Margaret Thatcher approvingly cited social scientists' findings on crime and unemployment.

But financially, the 1980s were tough. By 1992, the ESRC was receiving nearly £23 million of top-rated research proposals per year, but could fund only £8 million-worth. Fifty per cent of such proposals to the Medical Research Council were being supported, and 90 per cent by the Natural Environment Research Council. Such figures led the peer and academic Lord Sewel to call the ESRC "the Cinderella of the research councils".

But from the 1990s on, Cinders came out of the kitchen. The ESRC's budgetary fortunes improved. The Major government decided not to add the arts and humanities to the ESRC portfolio and within a decade moves were afoot to create a separate research council for these subjects. Sticking to its own subject area, the ESRC won applause for its innovative use of social science techniques in understanding environmental change. Nature noted that nearly all the reports from the UK government's Technology Foresight programme relied heavily on social science and fell within the ESRC's remit, adding that this implied a bigger budget for the smallest of the research councils.

It has not always been plain sailing since. But for the past 15 years the ESRC has become a valued partner to the other research councils and a mainstay of RCUK. Austerity has bitten here as elsewhere, but the ESRC has enjoyed broadly reasonable levels of funding, including significant investment in data collection and analysis, and a new birth study starting in 2014-15.

Continued - part 2