Meet the Board: Jonathan Portes

July 16, 2018

Prof. Jonathan Portes

Jonathan Portes is a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at King’s College London Jonathan is also a Senior Fellow of the Economic and Social Research Council’s “UK in a Changing Europe” initiative, based at King’s, which promotes high quality research into the complex and changing relationship between the UK and the European Union and a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.

What is your social science background?
Jonathan Portes (JP): My first degree was in mathematics. I was a civil servant most of my working life – first as a generalist, then as an economist. During my time as a civil servant I did a Masters’ degree in Public Policy, concentrating on economics, at Princeton. But in practice working on a variety of economic and social policy issues, as I did, means you learn, and use, knowledge and research across the whole range of social science disciplines. When I left the civil service, I joined the National Institute of Economic and Social Research – the UK’s oldest established independent economic research institute, but very much with a focus on policy-relevant research, often broader than pure economics.

Why did you decide to pursue a social-science focused career?
JP: I have always been interested in politics and policy – especially economic and social policy – and I wanted to be involved in making policy, but I didn’t want to go into politics. That led me to the civil service. I was always fascinated by the interaction between analysis and evidence on the one hand, and politics and policy-making on the other, and I’ve spent most of my career trying to bring them at least a little closer together.

How have your social science skills benefited you in your career?
JP: Throughout my career I’ve both used and produced social science research – on policy areas ranging from welfare policy to European monetary union to the financial crisis to immigration to Brexit. That has varied from using the lessons of Keynes and Minsky to help devise the UK response to the financial crisis, to the research that I and others have done on the labour market impacts of immigration.

What motivated you to join the Campaign Board and what do you hope to achieve?
JP: Particularly since leaving government, I’ve tried to use my public platforms not just to publicise my own research but to press for the better use of evidence, analysis and statistics in the public and policy debate. Social science has never been more important than now in addressing the pressing policy problems facing the UK, from Brexit to inequality; but in some ways its relevance has never been more contested, in an era of “fake news” and attacks on experts and expertise from politicians who should know better. It is vital that social scientists don’t just retreat into academia, but speak collectively (as far as we can) on the need for policy and the public debate to be informed by the sort of evidence that we can provide.

What are some interesting upcoming projects you’re working on?
JP: My current work is mostly focused on Brexit, in particular its impact on immigration and labour mobility, and I am continuing to conduct research on the economic impacts of immigration to inform policy as it develops, as well as to contribute to the ongoing debate about Brexit. Together with colleagues at the ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ I’ll be publishing a major report to mark one year from the Article 50 notification. I’m also involved in a project for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to quantify the impact of recent changes to tax, benefits and public spending on incomes and living standards for different groups – women, disabled people, and ethnic minorities.