A History of the ESRI

T.K. Whitaker at the unveiling of his portrait in the ESRI

Dr T.K. Whitaker was instrumental in establishing the Institute in 1960. He is pictured here (centre right) at the unveiling of his portrait in the ESRI building. 

The inception of The Economic and Social Research Institute can be fixed as 24 June 1960, the date on which the Institute – then known as the Economic Research Institute (ERI) – was first legally incorporated. On the same date, the Ford Foundation in New York approved a grant of $280,000 to fund the new institute for its first five years. A decisive influence on setting up the ERI was T. K. Whitaker, then Secretary of the Department of Finance, who in the course of preparing the major study, Economic Development, had identified the need for research on the Irish economy.

Good data were available from the work of the Central Statistics Office but these needed to be subjected to analysis using up-to-date quantitative techniques. It was considered desirable that this research be done outside the civil service in a setting free from government or political influence, and the Irish universities did not possess the resources to undertake research on the scale required. The Irish Government committed to finance the Institute at the end of the Ford Foundation funding. The importance of the Ford Foundation contribution lay not only in providing initial funding, but also in establishing an independent constitution for the Institute, which has been preserved ever since.

A discussion of the negotiations with the Ford Foundation and the Institute’s early years can be found in Chapter 8 of “Facilitating the Future? US Aid, European and Irish Industrial Viability 1948 – 1973” by Peter Murray.  

Initial research policy

The approach to research policy as set by the first Director, R.C. Geary who believed that all research papers “must be redolent of Ireland and must address themselves to problems which, rightly or wrongly, the people consider urgent and important”. On the other hand, “the popularity or otherwise of the researchers’ findings is not a consideration, provided that these findings are soundly based and cogently argued”. The personal responsibility of an author for his own work would be absolute. Details of the ESRI Geary Lecture Series are available here

A broadened remit from the mid-1960s with the addition of social research

A Social Research Committee (SRC) was set up under the auspices of the Institute of Public Administration in 1963. This Committee approached Henning Friis, then Director of the Danish National Institute for Social Research, who completed a report that recommended that a Social Research Institute be established but amalgamated with the Economic Research Institute to form an Economic and Social Research Institute, supported by the establishment of a field survey unit within the Institute.

Research staff

It was clear from the start that recruiting suitable research staff would be, not only the most important task, but also the most difficult one since there was no hope at that time of securing senior staff in Ireland. Geary made use of his extensive network of contacts with eminent economists and statisticians abroad to probe the international market. Arrangements had already been initiated to train young research workers at the Institute, through bursaries for junior university staff and scholarships for new graduates: these arrangements led to the subsequent establishment of the research assistant grade at the Institute.

The schemes for research assistant training, and for fellowships to pursue postgraduate study abroad, eventually played a critical part in transforming the state of economics and the other social sciences throughout Ireland. Many of the most prominent social scientists now holding senior positions in the Irish universities, the public service, and private consultancy firms served their apprenticeship at the Institute.

The 1970s and early 1980s

This was a period when the Institute built up a corpus of research across a broad range of topics. It continued to focus on central economic issues like employment and unemployment, inflation, industrial policy, the management of the public finances and of the macro-economy in general. Sectoral economic studies of areas such as agriculture, fisheries, dental and pharmaceutical services and the computer sector began to feature more prominently.

Given its later starting date, work on the social side was a little slower to emerge, but by the mid-eighties a significant number of publications had been produced in both sociology and social psychology. In sociology, the studies included analysis of social mobility, women at work, the family and education. In social psychology, a number of methodological papers were published which attempted to build up attitude scaling techniques suitable for use in Ireland. These were applied to assess the attitudes of the Irish people to poverty and other social issues. They were also used to examine attitudes in the Republic towards the situation in Northern Ireland, a study which provoked a considerable degree of controversy when published.

The funding challenge of the late 1980s

Until the late 1980s, the ESRI had remained more or less fully funded, first by the Ford Foundation grant and then by the Government grant-in-aid. The severe difficulties in the public finances from 1987 on led to sharp reductions in the Institute’s grant-in-aid. In the three years 1988-90, the grant-in-aid was cut by a cumulative total of about 20 per cent in nominal terms, at a time of rapid inflation. This posed a stark dilemma for the organisation: should it reduce its scale of operation in proportion to the reduction in the grant or should it maintain its activities by securing funding from other sources?

In the interests of continuing to fulfil its basic mission, the Institute decided to seek alternative sources of funding in the form of commissioned research and fund-raising drives. These initiatives were successful and after a few years the scale of operation had actually increased. Today, the grant-in-aid accounts for about one-third of total expenditure. The change in the funding regime created new tensions for the Institute. These included issues about how to retain independence and objectivity; how to focus on issues of national importance as compared to what was readily fundable; and how to ensure that high technical standards and high rates of academic publication continued to be reached while meeting budgetary targets.

A number of important steps were taken which transformed these tensions from constraints into positive, creative forces.

  • It was decided that it would become normal practice to accept contract work only when the client agreed in advance to its publication. This precluded suppression of unpalatable results and ensured that the ESRI’s work remained publicly available and widely disseminated.
  • New emphasis was placed on the development of multi-annual programmes of research or research centres. Such programmes allow researchers to commit themselves over the medium term to a particular area of work and to develop long-term research resources in the form of databases and large-scale models. They also help to build long-term collaborative relationships with the major decision-makers in government departments, state agencies and the private sector, while at the same time preserving the Institute’s independence to carry out the research and publish the findings in an objective and impartial way.
  • New emphasis was placed on specialist activities which yielded revenue as well as contributing to the research effort. These included the expansion of the Survey Unit throughout the 1990s and the establishment of the HIPE Unit at the Institute in 1990, and the NPRS Unit in 1999, both of which are based on a fully funded long-term research contract with the Department of Health and Children.

Features of ESRI research in the 1990s

Projects became larger and more complex, often requiring an interdisciplinary team and making greater demands on the Survey Unit. For example, the Medium Term Review published every two years involved a substantial group of editors and contributors. This endeavour provided invaluable interaction between and within disciplines and often led to new insights and research ideas. Another example would be the vast range of publications emanating from the Living in Ireland Survey 1994-2001 which resulted from intensive interdisciplinary co-operation among a large group of researchers. The capacity of the ESRI to collect, process and analyse huge datasets also grew substantially both in the Survey Unit and the data collected by the HIPE and NPRS programmes. As well as these databases, the Institute continued to develop a number of vital elements of research infrastructure. For instance, the HERMES macro-economic model of the Irish economy, which is under continuous refinement, is used in a variety of applications including the Medium Term Review. The SWITCH model of the tax and transfer system allows accurate estimates to be made of the impact of policy changes on different groups in the population and is especially useful for the analysis of measures proposed in the Budget and elsewhere.

The economic boom

From the late 1990s until mid 2008 the key issues and challenges Ireland faced were those of an advanced economy, with distinctive features associated with the highly globalised nature of the Irish economy. The focus of the Institute’s research shifted from emigration to immigration, from the consequence of unemployment to the demands of growing employment and from agricultural decline to high value added manufacturing and internationally traded services. Two publications “Bust to Boom” (2000) and The Best of Times? (2007) addressed the changes in Irish society brought about by the Celtic Tiger.

The research environment

The context in which the ESRI operates has changed considerably in recent years. Nationally, the pool of expertise capable of undertaking commissioned economic and social research has grown enormously, resulting in intensified competition. Firms of consultants have built up greater technical expertise, while the university departments now prioritise research and the winning of research contracts. Most of the tenders offered for research are subject to rigorous tendering conditions, often involving evaluation by international experts. This increased level of competition has led the Institute to collaborate frequently in bidding for substantial tenders, both with staff from the third level colleges and with leading firms of consultants.