Danielle Mason is Head of Profession for Social Research at the Cabinet Office.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I came to social research through a fairly unusual route, at least compared to most of the researchers I know. I did maths at Oxford University, and then a Masters in philosophy after deciding that pure maths was definitely not my calling. Towards the end of my philosophy degree I became particularly interested in political philosophy and questions of public policy, and I was able to use my statistics background to get a job doing quantitative research at the Department of Social Policy and Social Work (DSPSW) at Oxford. For someone who once swore they’d never do another day of maths, it was an unexpected turn.
With hindsight, I was really fortunate to get a research assistant post via this circuitous route; in later jobs I remember sifting swathes of applications from people with PhDs in social policy or social research, hoping to secure even an internship at a social research think tank. It’s a competitive field.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
My first research job was as a research assistant at Oxford. I worked for two research centres based there: the Social Disadvantage Research Centre, and its sister organisation the Centre for the Analysis of South African Social Policy. My first project was out in Pretoria, South Africa. We were exploring what a measure of social exclusion or deprivation, such as that pioneered by Mack and Lansley in the UK , might look like for post-apartheid South Africa; an amazing project to be involved in. One of the big unknowns was whether, in a society that had been socially divided for so long, it would be possible to develop a measure of social exclusion that was meaningful across different racial and socio-economic groups. In fact, the focus groups we ran revealed very broad agreement on what constituted social exclusion in South Africa, which opened the way for the development of new relative poverty indicators for the country, moving on from the absolute ‘dollar-a-day’ poverty measures used by developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
Working in academia was extremely rewarding, and was a great environment for me to build up broader social research skills in additional to my statistical knowledge. However, I was eager to be closer to policy making, and so after a few years at Oxford I moved first to the think tank and research centre the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion in London, and then into the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as a senior researcher. I feel very fortunate that I’ve had this mixed experience; working in academia, as a contractor, and as a government researcher. It’s been particularly valuable in my role as Head of Profession for Social Research in the Cabinet Office, collaborating with researchers from all these different sectors.
What has been your best professional moment?
After a year working on pension reform in DWP (a fascinating area in itself) I managed to net my dream job in the Child Poverty Unit, then still fairly new and just beginning work on the Child Poverty Bill. I was ‘translating’ the technical details of child poverty measurement into legislative terms, which as I write it down now hardly sounds thrilling, but for me it was a perfect combination of policy and research, in an area I’m passionate about, and it also gave me my first taste of Parliament. Call me a geek, but I still get excited when I walk through Westminster Hall for a meeting or a bill reading. So, if I had to name a best professional moment then I suppose Royal Assent of the Child Poverty Bill in March 2010 wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
I don’t think I have a particular research hero, I just love to see people flying the flag for robust evidence in an environment where sensational headlines and supposed ‘common sense’ can so often get in the way of a clear understanding of what’s really going on.
Do you have a favourite quote?
“To do more, you need to know more”. So Kevan Collins from the Education Endowment Foundation concluded at a recent event hosted by the ‘What Works’ Network. I can’t think of many phrases that sum up the need for social policy research as neatly as that.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
I would highlight the importance of quantitative skills, especially for researchers wanting to do applied work of any kind. The social insights to be gained from quantitative data are increasing hugely as society collects more and more information about every aspect of our lives. I think this means that there will be less demand from research customers for purely qualitative social research, which does not take advantage of the wealth of available quantitative data to support, supplement or contextualise it. There will always be a need for qualitative research, but I think it will be increasingly important for a social researcher to be comfortable working with quantitative data, especially in non-academic roles.