Six Oxford social science researchers awarded at prestigious 2023 ESRC Impact Awards

Six Oxford social scientists have been awarded major government-backed prizes for their influential and policy-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.

Outstanding Public Policy Impact Prize

Economist Dr Orkin, from Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, won this prize for her influential and life-changing project, "Redesigning Social Protection in South Africa: Poverty Relief, Job Search and Youth Employment during COVID-19."  

Professor Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Tom Mayne, and Dr Tena Prelec, from a Department of Politics and International Relations, were runner-ups for the "Countering Kleptocracy Project" in collaboration with University of Exeter.  

The award was presented by Professor Ben Johnson, Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State at the Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology, who said, ‘Social sciences are changing the world for the better. We are reminded that there is no public policy that doesn’t draw upon and rely on social sciences in any way.’ He reflected, ‘Lots of government civil servants have the answers but the valuable people are the people asking questions, and social scientists are expert question finders. The impact, from public health to net zero, is profound.’ 

Winner: Redesigning social protection in South Africa: poverty relief, job search and youth employment during COVID-19." 

Kate's project formed an urgent policy response to the economic crisis in South Africa created by COVID-19. It transformed the approach to welfare distribution using a new approach called Unconditional Cash Transfers. Before the pandemic, Kate used ESRC funding to trial giving one-off unconditional cash transfers across 415 villages of 8000 people. The project found people were using the money in constructive and resourceful ways, to expand businesses, earn more income and purchase more nutritional food. When the pandemic arrived, Kate was commissioned by the government to provide policy advice along with academics from the University of Cape Town, on how to provide emergency assistance at scale. Based on their economic models, the government revised their policies to create cash assistance, rather than food parcels, including a new emergency monthly cash grant for 10.5 million unemployed people who had not been eligible for welfare before. This policy shift increased those supported from 1.2 million to 28 million. The project showed this change kept 5.5 million people out of extreme poverty in the first lockdown.  

Saul Musker, Director of Project Management Office, Private Office of the President of South Africa, explained, that the team had to act very quickly to the arrival of the pandemic in early 2020 to get support to those who needed it. ‘In the end, South Africa implemented one of the most rapid, far reaching and effective emergency cash transfer programmes in the world.’ This was possible by drawing on the advice, data, and evidence of Professor Orkin and her colleagues, with recommendations on increasing employment in the longer term.  

This has led to the redesigning of three major social welfare policies as a result, assisting over 10 million people by 2023. Recipients have been able to invest in assets to give them choices to improve their lives.

Finalist: "Countering Kleptocracy Project" 

Professor Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, Tom Mayne and Dr Tena Prelec, along with Professor John Heathershaw (University of Exeter), and the ESRC-funded Countering Kleptocracy project team were runners up, sought to understand the flow of illicit finance and suspicious wealth into the UK and what government and policymakers can do to control it.  

The project has gone on to influence and amend policies to create new frameworks to make the UK less vulnerable to illicit finance.  

Outstanding Early Career Impact 

Lukas Lehner, from Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention, won this prize for his significant project, "Designing a guaranteed job scheme to reduce long-term unemployment." Dr Julia Ebner's forward-thinking "Understanding indicators of proneness to extreme violence among online users" was named the Runner Up.  

The award was presented by Professor Nola Hewitt-Dundas, Professor of Innovation Management and Policy and Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Queen's University Belfast. 

Professor Hewitt-Dundas shared, ‘Our winners and finalists demonstrated strong research questions, challenges, and opportunities. Their projects showcased robust research methods and stakeholders, making a lasting impact on those included in the research.’ She added that the projects made her optimistic about the role of social sciences in addressing challenges for the future.  

Winner: 'Designing a guaranteed job scheme to reduce long-term unemployment' 

Lukas Lehner used his 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. 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 that participants felt happier, more satisfied, and more in control of their lives, with a greater sense of community and personal value. The stigma associated with training from job centres has been addressed, and Lukas has worked with job centres to create information packs and broaden access to training, resulting in a 20% increase in uptake. 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.’ 

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.  

Finalist: 'Understanding indicators of proneness to extreme violence among online users' 

Anthropologist, Dr Julia Ebner's research used analytical technology to better 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.