Heriot-Watt wins research award for unique study on destitution



Heriot-Watt’s Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Equalities Research (I-SPHERE), and its market research partner Kantar Public, has received a prestigious award from the Market Research Society (MRS), the leading authority on research, insight and data analytics.

The MRS Awards draw attention to research’s ability to drive innovation, inspire change and deliver results. Awarding the accolade for ‘Inclusive Research’ to Kantar and I-SPHERE’s joint submission, the judges praised the pathbreaking study on destitution’s ‘re-emergence’ in the UK, describing it as “an impressive example of inclusive research in a difficult area.”

Commenting on the team’s insights, the judges highlighted the study’s instant impact and its ability to generate widespread press coverage.

The research study remains unparalleled in its comprehensiveness, overcoming intellectual, methodological, and logistical challenges to provide robust statistical and qualitative data on hidden and hard-to-reach groups.

The study, which is led by Heriot-Watt University on behalf of Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), revealed an ‘appalling’ rise in destitution in the UK between 2017 and 2019, even before the pandemic hit. Approximately 2.4 million people were found to be experiencing destitution in 2019, a 54% increase since 2017. The report was the third in a series of Destitution in the UK studies.

Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, director of I-SPHERE at Heriot-Watt University said: “We are extremely proud to receive this award for Inclusive Research together with our partners Kantar Public. The sheer scale and diversity of the methods employed in this multi-year programme of work are testimony to the ambition of the study, involving interviews with 50 key experts, a survey of 2,000 members of the public, analysis of over 40 quantitative datasets, surveys of almost 4,000 users of over 100 crisis services, and in-depth interviews with 120 destitute people. Undertaking a study of this type presents an incredible logistical and intellectual challenge to our team and the many partners who help us to deliver the work. Everyone who assisted with the study or took part deserves this recognition.”

No study of this scale or size had been attempted previously and I-SPHERE had no sampling frame and were required to conceive all methodology and techniques from scratch. Generating a sampling frame to ensure statistical robustness where none existed previously, was a central practical challenge of the first study. It necessitated building relationships with over 100 hard-pressed crisis services, many of which operate with an informal staffing structure, to take part in the research. The work also represented an enormous intellectual endeavour with 40 secondary data sets used to generate predicted levels of destitution in every UK local authority area.

Studies of this calibre and impact have helped to build I-SPHERE’s profile as a leader in social science research in a university more commonly known for its technical sciences. It has established an entire policy and scholarly agenda that did not exist previously, and which had been neglected by mainstream poverty researchers until recently.


Annie Pugh