Research Champion for Justice and Equality: Professor Kate Pickett

Our research champions outlined the challenges and opportunities facing researchers within each of their themes at a research showcase in October 2015 to mark the inauguration of the University’s new Chancellor, Professor Sir Malcolm Grant.

Professor Kate Pickett argued in her presentation that the University of York has played a pivotal role in putting inequality on the political agenda. The challenge now is to design the solutions...

In setting the scene for her theme, Professor Pickett argued that Justice and Equality are essential preconditions for the freedom of thought and expression that allows excellent research to flourish. In much of the world today, research across the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities is suppressed by injustice and inequality. In Canada, for example, in 2013, 90 per cent of government scientists felt constrained by their government in what they could research, and what they could say.

York cherishes these freedoms, which is why it has been a pioneer in research into inequality. But, despite all the evidence of the harm that inequality inflicts on all of us, we still live in a deeply unequal world. Professor Pickett told her audience how the combined wealth of the richest one per cent will overtake that of the other 99 per cent of people in 2016 unless the current trend of rising inequality is checked; vast riches sit side by side with extreme poverty. This isn’t just a problem in the developing world’s megacities, but throughout the rich, developed world as well.

Kate Pickett is Professor of Epidemiology in the University’s Department of Health Sciences. Co-founder and trustee of The Equality Trust, she is also co-author of The Spirit Level, a best-selling book which highlights the problems caused by unequal distribution of incomes.

Slavery in the 21st century

In the UK, after declining inequality through much of the 20th century, we’re now back to levels of inequality last seen in the 1920s, and there are as many maids working in Mayfair today as there were in Victorian times. Slavery still exists in 21st-century Britain, with an estimated 5,000 people trafficked to the UK at any one time. While some are forced into prostitution, increasing numbers are forced to work in construction, agriculture, domestic work, cleaning and in factories.

Academics at the University of York have been setting the research agenda and influencing policy makers on issues of justice and equality, changing the way the world thinks about these issues. They have demonstrated the impact of income inequality on a range of health and social issues and shown how inequality affects the rich as well as the poor. They have pioneered new ways of measuring poverty and been at the forefront of conceptualising and measuring child wellbeing in the UK and internationally. World leaders, such as Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations, Christine Lagarde at the International Monetary Fund, the Pope and President Barack Obama are now openly discussing the need to take action on entrenched inequality.

Social reform

But the University is not alone in harnessing research to effect social change. The city of York also has a long history of setting the agenda in justice and equality issues. Joseph Rowntree was a pioneer of social reform born and bred in York and his son, Seebohm Rowntree, meticulously developed the concept and measurement of the ‘poverty line’, including the idea that a good quality of life requires resources beyond what is needed for mere survival – one must have enough to be able to participate in social relationships and community life.

York also saw the establishment by William Tuke of the first asylum treating sufferers of mental illness with respect and compassion. The Retreat is still in existence and nurses in training at the University undertake placements there, while the Joseph Rowntree Foundations and Trusts supported the University at its foundation in 1960, including the gift of Heslington Hall, and continue a strong and supportive relationship with the University and its social policy researchers.

Sadly, despite the strength of research at York and elsewhere, many of the social problems investigated by York’s early social reformers persist – poverty, low wages, poor working conditions and the condemnation of the poor for their own problems.

Financial crisis

But perhaps times are changing. The global financial crisis has precipitated countless calls for our societies and economies to be structured differently, and for nations to pursue alternative goals to economic growth at all costs. We hear talk of the need for a ‘new normal’, and we’ve witnessed international protest movements and calls for change. Justice and equality issues are at the heart of the transformations needed to cope with the challenges of climate change.

So what comes next? Professor Pickett described how at the University of York, researchers continue to break new ground and champion justice and equality through their world-class research. In our Centre for Applied Human Rights, researchers are funded to study the Mediterranean migrant crisis to inform policy and responses. Education in Conflict and Emergencies is a joint programme of research between the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit and the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York, and theories of equality and social justice are under the microscope in our Department of Politics. These are just three examples from a long list of projects, programmes and people that cannot fail to inspire.

But our research needs to have impact and relevance. We must respond to the world’s agenda, as well as doing research to shape it. This September saw the adoption by the 193 countries of the United Nations of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, a worldwide agreement that should promote justice and greater equality within countries both rich and poor. Professor Pickett argued that our evolving research strategy has strong parallels with the UN’s goals, which include an end to poverty and hunger; health and wellbeing; responsible consumption; reduced inequality and gender equality; sustainable cities; clean water; sanitation; climate mitigation; clean energy; and peace, justice and strong institutions.

Challenges and opportunities

These challenges are also an opportunity. An opportunity for researchers across all our seven themes, not just Justice and Equality, to develop a vision of a better world, in line with the goals, targets, and indicators contained in the sustainable development goals. Professor Pickett wants to see the University of York helping to ensure that vision is followed by venture. That’s going to require us to think differently, an idea echoed and developed later by Professor Thomas Krauss, and to find new ways of working and communicating. “I’m up for that challenge, and I know my inspirational colleagues will be too,” she said.