The Radcliffe Camera
New Year Honours 2024

Six Oxford social scientists scoop top awards for world-leading research

Six Oxford social scientists were last night given major government-backed prizes for their influential and life-changing research. Dr Kate Orkin and doctoral student Lukas Lehner were category winners in the Economic and Social Research Council Impact awards, while prestigious runners up awards went to Dr Julia Ebner and a team including Professor Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Tom Mayne and Dr Tena Prelec.

ESRC’s Executive Chair Stian Westlake said, ‘[This] is our opportunity to recognise the remarkable achievements of outstanding social scientists, whose works has harnessed the power of social science to shape a fairer and more prosperous world.

‘…I commend the exemplary researchers that have harnessed their ESRC-funding to make contributions beyond academia that are of potentially long-lasting and life-changing benefit to society.’

Economist Dr Orkin, from Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, won the Outstanding Public Policy Impact prize for her influential and life-changing project, ‘Redesigning social protection in South Africa: poverty relief, job search and youth employment during COVID-19.’

Economist Dr Kate Orkin won the Outstanding Public Policy Impact prize for her influential and life-changing project

Part of an urgent policy response to the economic crisis in South Africa created by COVID-19, her project transformed the approach to welfare distribution using a new approach called Unconditional Cash Transfers.

Before the pandemic, Dr Orkin used ESRC funding to trial giving one-off unconditional cash transfers across 415 villages of 8000 people…When the pandemic arrived, she was commissioned by the government to provide policy advice along with academics from University of Cape Town, on how to provide emergency assistance at scale.

Based on their economic models, the South African government revised their policies to create cash assistance, rather than food parcels…This policy shift increased those supported from 1.2million to 28million. The project showed this change kept 5.5 million people out of extreme poverty in the first lockdown.  

The Countering Kleptocracy Project’ from a Department of Politics and International Relations team of Professor Soares de Oliveira, Tom Mayne and Dr Prelec's along with Professor John Heathershaw (University of Exeter), was runner up.

The ESRC-funded team sought to understand the flow of illicit finance and suspicious wealth into the UK and what government and policy makers can do to control it.  The project has gone on influence and amend policies to create new frameworks to make the UK less vulnerable to illicit finance.  

Professor Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Tom Mayne and Dr Tena Prelec came runners up for their work to understand the flow of illicit finance and suspicious wealth into the UK and what government and policy makers can do to control it

Meanwhile, researchers who were studying for their doctorates when they were working on the projects, were awarded prizes for Outstanding Early Career Impact.

Lukas Lehner, from Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention, won the category for his project, ‘Designing a guaranteed job scheme to reduce long-term unemployment.’

Lukas Lehner used ESRC funding to design a new job guarantee scheme for a small community in Austria. 

Launched in 2020, the initiative was designed to bring unemployed individuals back into the workforce with a minimum wage.

Lukas Lehner won the Outstanding Early Career Impact prize for his project to design a new job guarantee scheme 

To ensure that the scheme was informed by the latest evidence, it was designed with voluntary participation and meaningful employment in mind, along with innovative ways to motivate participation. The results showed participants felt happier, more satisfied, and more in control of their lives, with a greater sense of community and personal value.

To date, 50,000 job seekers have benefited from the new approach. 

Sven Hergovich, Member of the Lower Austrian Government, said Lukas played a pivotal role in the planning of the job guarantee scheme, and his expertise informed and resulted in the programme's impact. The program's innovative and effective approach has had a tremendous influence on the future of such policies.’ 

Dr Julia Ebner came runner up for her research to better predict acts of terror and tackle extremism online

The project generated rigorous evidence for policymakers to expand the programme. Professor Maximillian Kasy, Professor of Economics at the University of Oxford added, many international institutions are now discussing policies, drawing among others, on the insights of the pilot and its policy evaluation.  

Anthropologist Dr Ebner's project, ‘Understanding indicators of proneness to extreme violence among online users’ came runner up for a highly-novel project looking at online terror.

Her research used analytical technology to predict acts of terror and violence, creating a new framework to tackle extremism online. By identifying language patterns and creating a violence risk index, the assessment framework was applied to extremist ideology and highlighted challenges faced by key security groups. Her approach provided nuanced and beneficial contributions to private and public approaches to violence risk assessment. 

Part of the Festival of Social Science, the awards were announced at the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prizes ceremony at the Royal Society in London.  

Each category winner was awarded a prize of £10,000 to be spent on furthering knowledge exchange, public engagement, or other communications activities to promote the economic and social impact of their research.