Leadership announcements

Annual Report and Accounts 2021

Introduction by Sir Stuart Etherington

As the Chair of the Board of Trustees, it is my pleasure to deliver the 2020/21 annual report, along with the audited financial statements for the year ended 30 June 2021.

This annual report period covers my first few months in post as the new Chair of the Trustee Board, a role I was delighted to take on. National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) has such a crucial part to play in collecting, analysing and disseminating the evidence needed to inform policy makers on issues affecting people’s lives today. I would also like to thank my predecessor, Professor Sir Robert Burgess, for his tenure and leaving NatCen a strong and stable organisation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has continued to have a major impact on the economy and individuals in the UK and across the world. I am extremely proud to see how NatCen and its staff team have responded to the pandemic and, specifically, the role we have played in collecting data to understand infection rates and conducting reporting on the pandemic’s wider effects on society.

A significant part of NatCen’s work during this financial year has been its contribution to the Office for National Statistics’ COVID-19 Infection Survey. We have been one of the partners responsible for the data collection that has been essential for calculating the R infection rate and informing government on vaccine efficacy. This work has also helped to provide financial stability to NatCen at a time when many other research projects have been paused. The additional benefit of this work has been in supporting UK employment during this time, recruiting and retaining interviewers around the country.

During the last 12 months, NatCen has successfully transitioned to alternative survey methods for much of our regular work, taking advantage of developments in technology, as well as developing new modes. This important work has ensured we have been able to transform a number of surveys, including the British Social Attitudes Survey which was conducted completely online for the first time; the findings of which will be reported in Autumn 2021.

As a result of the pandemic, there has been increasing interest in mental health, particularly in relation to the lockdown restrictions and the impact these may have had on individuals and specific community groups. A report published in April 2021, entitled ‘Mental health – Should we be worried?’, provided an overview of the public’s mental health, with new analysis by NatCen from the Understanding Society longitudinal study showing the impacts of the pandemic on the public’s financial and mental health.

Our financial results for 2020/21 report an annual surplus, the fifth in succession. This is an extraordinary achievement given so much of our face-to-face work was paused in March 2020 and has yet to resume since. It reflects the significance of the pandemic-related projects that have been commissioned that have kept the team busy. NatCen continues to be ambitious in the number and variety of projects it leads on. It has also been reassuring to see our pensions’ deficit reduce significantly this year and we retain an agreed long-term plan to reduce this further.

The Board of Trustees provides stewardship of NatCen and we oversee changes to improve, modernise and streamline the organisation, so that we can offer high quality, independent research at the best possible value. We are confident that NatCen is in a strong position for the future to continue delivering impactful social research for the benefit of society.

Our ‘Towards 2025’ strategy sets out a path to establishing the organisation as the National Centre for Social Research, the first port of call for those who want to commission social research or to find out about our society. To achieve this, we are identifying new opportunities for growth and development in line with changing customer expectations. As leaders in the social research community, we are building on our methodological excellence, developing Centres of Excellence such as on Social Survey Transformation, and supporting the next generation of researchers with our portfolio of training courses and online events. Over the next few years, we will see continued investment into new and innovative data collection methods and will diversify our work programme into new topic areas, whilst also looking to expand our research and services internationally.

Working with the general public to understand what people think about important social issues is at the heart of what NatCen stands for. Ensuring that our work is effectively communicated and reaches the widest number of stakeholders is key to helping shape policy-making and inform decisions to make life better. Our strategy focuses on how we can improve the way we communicate our research findings and grow our conversation with the public further, for example through our ground-breaking Centre for Deliberative Research.

Our staff team remain our greatest resource in delivering the social research we conduct and we will continue to invest in developing an engaged and passionate workforce. To achieve our strategic objectives, we will provide mentorship to staff, providing a clear career path for development, as well as recruit talented individuals with the skills we need to increase our resources as we grow.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Trustees for their commitment in serving NatCen, as well as the staff team for their passion, resilience and contribution to NatCen’s success. A specific mention also goes to the hundreds of field workers who have collected data throughout the year, and to the many thousands of members of the public who support our work through their active participation in our studies.

As for many organisations, this has been a challenging time, including for our commissioners and our staff, and it is with the strength and stability brought by our Leadership Team and the Chief Executive, Guy Goodwin, that NatCen has been able to successfully navigate and thrive over this period.

There is no doubt that the work that NatCen has achieved in the last 12 months has played a crucial role in understanding the pandemic and its effects. At the time of writing, we enter a new period where the UK has seen government restrictions on COVID-19 relaxed. NatCen will inevitably play an essential role in collecting research evidence to increase understanding of what is the ‘new normal’ and to inform stakeholders in shaping the future of society. Sir Stuart Etherington Chair of the Board of Trustees Date: 3 November 2021