It is hard to spend long in public life in Britain without encountering the legacy of Michael Young. Its most obvious manifestation is the dizzying range of valuable institutions that he set up. Less visible, but just as important, is the group of Michael Young devotees that one finds in the most unexpected places, from politics, to technology, to design, and across the political spectrum.

Making a positive difference to ‘the real world’

My appreciation for Young’s approach was renewed when, 15 years after leaving The Young Foundation, I took up the role of Executive Chair of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), a public body that was very much Young’s brainchild. The idea of a public body to fund useful social research was something Young pushed for in the late 1940s, and when the Social Science Research Council (the ESRC’s precursor body) was set up in 1967, Young was appointed by Tony Crosland as its first Director.

As outlined in the excellent books of Asa Briggs, Lise Butler, and David Walker, Young’s vision for the Council reflects the creative dualities of so much of this work. It was (and remains) committed to rigorous social research – but at the same time to the idea that research must be engaged with, and make a positive difference to, the real world. In Young’s words, reported in David Walker’s history of the ESRC, “the social sciences are and will be useful and in that measure supported in so far as they add to mankind’s span of control”.

The plans for the Council also reflect the creative tension in Young’s philosophy regarding institutions. He was (as the range of contributors to this series of essays shows) a prolific builder of institutions, and someone who believed that institutions were powerful agents for good in society. At the same time, had a healthy scepticism of existing institutions, always willing to question in whose interest they operated. The story was often told in my time at The Young Foundation of how, in the aftermath of Labour’s election victory of 1945, Young pushed to have an empty seat reserved at the Cabinet table to represent the ordinary citizen. This tension was made manifest in the original structure of the Council, which sought to strike a balance between bringing together social science expertise from Britain’s universities, and an openness to influence from beyond academia, and an awareness that important social research might be done both inside and outside the academy.

Embracing technology

The early history of the Council also reflects Young’s keen interest in the future, and in the possibilities of technology. The spirit that drove Young to harness the powers of mid-20th century telecommunications – television and telephones – to practical ends in the Open University and Language Line also informed the early interests of the Social Science Research Council in futurology and forecasting.

These aspects of Young’s vision, over half a century ago, feel urgently relevant to the ESRC today. He saw social science as an inherently applied discipline, and this remains central to the rationale for public investment in social research. It also aligns nicely with more recent conceptualisations of social science, such as Bent Flyvbjerg’s description of social science as “applied phronesis”. Through existing programmes, such as the Policy Fellowships, Impact Acceleration Accounts, and close work with policymakers, the ESRC’s work seeks to strengthen the links between academic social science research and practitioners.

This also links to Young’s critical interest in institutions. Making the most of connections between social research and the wider world requires a healthy ecosystem of research organisations, including both universities and independent research organisations (such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the National Centre for Social Research, or indeed The Young Foundation). Institutional diversity, and the diversity of viewpoints and incentives that it can support, help to keep social research connected to real-world issues and to increase its impact.

A data-driven approach

From a technological perspective, Young’s vision highlights the importance of the ESRC as a funder of work on the social sciences of technology and innovation, including how to make new technologies such as artificial intelligence useful to humanity, and how to understand and optimise the innovation system. It also underlines the importance of our own investments in social science data (which currently represents a quarter of ESRC’s annual expenditure): in an age of increasing analytical and computational power, deepening these investments is an urgent priority – as is making sure they are used wisely and well.

Like many of the institutions that make up Michael Young’s legacy, the ESRC has been through many changes since its foundation. But the values that he lived by provide a guide for our future that is as relevant now as it was in his lifetime.

Photo by Sylwia Bartyzel on Unsplash
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