Teresa Williams had just started work as Director, Social Research & Policy, Nuffield Foundation, responsible for its research programmes on Children & Families and Law in Society. Before that she had worked in the Government Social Research service, most recently as Chief Researcher at the Ministry of Justice.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Initially an airline pilot – mainly motivated by learning that it was well paid and that women hadn’t been allowed to do it. I don’t think it was the uniform!
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I remember my history teacher saying I was too sociable for a career in science (hmm!) in an attempt to get me to think broadly about my A-levels. I ignored him and did all Science A-levels but something from that conversation stuck and when I applied for university I decided to study social anthropology rather than natural sciences. But I was happiest in the boundaries between science and social science and pretty much knew towards the end of my time at university that I was most interested in applied social research.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
My first job after university was at Social & Community Planning Research (now NatCen). My first project was piloting and arranging the mainstage fieldwork for the National Child Development Study’s fifth sweep of the 1958 birth cohort who at that time had reached the age of 33. The fieldwork was quite complex – it involved a number of medical checks (height, weight etc) and also collected information about their children. I learned early on just what an amazing job interviewers do – we had some very feisty ones at SCPR who were not backward in putting junior researchers straight if questions didn’t work!
What has been your best professional moment?
I had serious doubts about whether it would be possible (as the Treasury was dictating) to design and implement an appropriate RCT to evaluate the New Deal for Disabled People given it was a voluntary programme, we knew very little about likely effect sizes, and the delivery was through private and third sector providers with considerable latitude for ‘innovation’. A professional highpoint was the admission from a senior Treasury official that perhaps they had been overly ambitious in trying to test too many things at once – she was also woman enough to acknowledge that this was what I had been saying all along!
Well we all have our skeletons. I remember getting the initial data back on my first ‘solo’ project at SCPR on pension provision (following the introduction of ‘Personal Pension Plans’) and spending many hours scratching my head on why my weighting ratios made no sense at all – only to discover that the wrong sampling fraction had been calculated and applied to people in employer pension schemes leaving us with way too few in this group. Although I hadn’t calculated the fraction (the sample was supplied to us by DSS as was) I should have checked it was correct. Luckily I had a wonderful boss who gave me the credit for picking up the mistake and who was a great support in the ‘difficult conversation’ with our clients at DSS. It was a really good lesson early in my career about the importance of being open about mistakes as soon as possible.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Roger Jowell was definitely my social research hero. He was truly inspirational in having a genuine passion for the difference social research can make to policy, the importance of professional standards and ethics, with a good dollop of creativity and innovation thrown in. Plus he was a charmer!
Do you have a favourite quote?
“It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong” [JM Keynes]
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
I do a lot of this! My main message (bearing in mind that I work in applied social research) is:
- Social research is wonderfully creative and challenging as ‘real world’, as opposed to laboratory, research requires us to make constant tradeoffs between scientific purity and pragmatic implementation. Given the changing nature of society and human interaction, we are permanently kept on our toes – there’s never a dull moment.
And my practical tips are
- You’ve got to care about the ‘so what’ – if research-based knowledge is going to make a difference you need to think hard about who might use (or shoot down) your findings and how. Putting effort into this at the design stage can reap dividends later.
- It’s really important to have a good grasp of a range of methods – as the most influential work often blends different types of evidence.
- Try and get your hands dirty with data early in your career – it only gets harder!
- Spend time networking – a great way to do this is to join societies such as the SRA. I was a member of the SRA Exec early in my career and it was invaluable in understanding issues in the wider social research community.
Interview by William Solesbury