Versatile applied economist
Thursday 09 March 2006
Michael Vivian Posner, economist: born 25 August 1931; Research Officer, Oxford Institute of Statistics 1953-57; Assistant Lecturer, then Lecturer, then Reader in Economics, Cambridge University 1958-79; Fellow, Pembroke College, Cambridge 1960-83; Director of Economics, Ministry of Power 1966-67; Consultant to the IMF 1971-72; Chairman, Social Science Research Council 1979-83; CBE 1983; Economics Director, National Economic Development Office 1984-86; Secretary-General, European Science Foundation 1986-93; married 1953 Rebecca Reynolds (one son, one daughter); died Oxford 14 February 2006.
Keith Joseph, who succeeded Mark Carlisle as Secretary of State for Education and Science in September 1981, personified the Thatcher government's scepticism about social research. An obstinate Popperian, Joseph objected keenly to the label social science; and had long had the Social Science Research Council in his sights. On 22 December that year, Joseph announced to Parliament that Lord Rothschild had agreed to conduct a review into the scale and nature of the SSRC's work. Correspondence with the then Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, promptly leaked, revealed that Joseph expected the review to come up with a justification for closing the council down.
Michael Posner had been appointed in 1979 to head the SSRC in the waning months of the Callaghan government. Over the two years preceding Joseph, he had put this Benjamin among research councils, bled but left to its own devices by Carlisle, through tough reforms that won few friends in social-sciences dovecotes but considerable esteem among Posner's fellow heads of (more powerful) scientific research councils. By the time Joseph arrived at the DES, Posner had dismantled the SSRC's subject-by-subject baronies, skilfully using interdisciplinary committees to shift limited funds (with some personal misgivings) from support for postgraduate training to collaborative "managed" research initiatives.
Although Posner had seen Joseph more often in three months than Carlisle in two years, he was not told of the Rothschild review till the evening before the announcement to Parliament. He briefly considered resigning, but by the afternoon of the announcement had begun a masterly campaign against Joseph's purpose. Aside from the reforms already effected (to which Joseph, more dogmatically than cerebrally opposed to the whole enterprise, was largely oblivious), two features helped. Posner could count on the heavyweight backing of the scientific research councils whom Joseph had already crossed ("He was the enemy, we were friends"); and who saw the attack on the SSRC as a violation of the Haldane principle that public funding should not be driven by political agenda.
Moreover, Posner had friends all over Whitehall, in particular in William Waldegrave (Joseph's junior minister) and in Rothschild himself. It was Waldegrave who, in a sympathetically protective move, had suggested to Joseph the procedural device of the Rothschild review, on the grounds that the then fledgling SSRC had been omitted from the assessment of the research councils that the Downing Street policy unit had conducted, under Rothschild, in 1971.
Posner worked every connection. Over three months Rothschild received 300 submissions (half a million words), 160 from the great and the good, in particular in the natural sciences (whose support Posner had shrewdly seen as key) and half as many again from commanding institutional heights, ranging across the Royal Society, the Law Commission, the CBI, the Leverhulme Trust, etc, as well as their counterparts abroad.
When Rothschild reported to Joseph on 19 May 1982, it was clear that the Secretary of State's plan had backfired: the report made a strong case for stopping the council's financial bleeding, and accepted the submission that dismemberment or liquidation of the SSRC would be an "act of intellectual vandalism". Indeed Rothschild went out of his way to provide an elegant tutorial on why, epistemologically, Popper cannot apply to social science.
Joseph took defeat without equanimity. But, by sitting on the report from May to October, he gave the SSRC the advantage of getting briskly to work on its 25 recommendations. Posner, discreetly briefed from inside the DES on the mutilation to expect and prevent, had plenty of ammunition; and he had support among junior ministers ("I am against wounding [the SSRC] again," wrote one, "just because we feel we cannot close it").
In the end, Joseph's aversion to "social science" allowed Posner to outmanoeuvre him into accepting Rothschild in toto in return for replacing the offending term by "economic and social" in the council's title. Posner commented to the press, "Sir Keith can call it the White Fish Authority if he likes." The principle of public funding for social research had been preserved. "I played a poor hand as best I could" was Posner's assessment.
Michael Posner was a distinguished and versatile applied economist whose interests, strongly policy-oriented, ranged across international and monetary economics, to energy policy and the running of state enterprises. His contributions were informed by repeated spells in public administration, at the Ministry of Power (later Energy), at the Treasury, at the International Monetary Fund, and then on the board of British Rail and of the Post Office and rail pension funds.
In an early paper ("International Trade and Technical Change", 1961) he modelled the idea - the stimulus to investment provided by transitory monopoly - which formed the nucleus of what has since become known as "new" international trade theory. In 1981 he co-authored with Richard Eden the important study Energy Economics. But in many ways his special gift of bright synthesis is clearest in the policy commentaries he contributed to the "Clare group" (a sort of Monetary Policy Committee in waiting) and before that to a much-read stockbroking client letter.
As a Fellow of Pembroke College he taught in Cambridge off and on for 25 years. A Posner sabbatical was known, affectionately, as being in residence one term in seven. But his lectures were memorable for their no-nonsense efficiency. For the first three-quarters of an hour the issues were beautifully filleted, decanters out of sight; then tumblers all round.
Posner was chairman of the Cambridge faculty of economics at a more than usually fractious time in the mid-1970s, and did much to save it from itself. The same gift, of meticulous listening, bright summary without a trace of pedantry, and despatch in action, made him exceptionally effective on committees; and it provided for a particularly happy and productive eight-year tenure, after the SSRC, as head of the European Science Foundation in Strasbourg.
A genial man, generously built, with an Oxford manner and wonderful courtesy, he was all civility, no Danegeld to political correctness, and with a capacity for exceptionally intelligent kindness. He would wager the idle on their examination results, and pay up in fine claret the moment the first class was posted.
Happily married to a distinguished Oxford philologist, he led a peripatetic donnish life between Cambridge, the Barbican, a cottage on the Castle Howard estate, Brussels and Strasbourg, and the Oxford house with a distant view of the Bodleian where he died.
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