Frances Cairncross

Doctor of Science


Mr. Vice-Chancellor, as Professor of the Economics of Public Policy at this University, it is my great privilege to introduce Frances Cairncross.

Frances Cairncross began her scholarship early. Her father, Sir Alec Cairncross, was the doyen of the British economics profession. He was a highly regarded as a scholar, onetime Head of the Government Economic Service and author of what was perhaps the first introductory economics text.  As an undergraduate, Frances studied Modern History at Oxford University, from where she graduated with First Class Honours in 1965.  She then crossed the Atlantic  - a very wise move for any one with intellectual curiosity and especially one interested in social and economic affairs - to study Economics at Brown University.  On her return she started a life long career as an economics journalist and writer.  She has held appointments on an impressive list of heavyweight publications. Her career began at the Financial Times, and then moved to the Banker and the Observer. In 1973 she was appointed economics correspondent of the Guardian, a post she held until 1984. In 1984 she joined the Economist, where she was successively the Britain, environment and media and communications editor. From 1998 onwards she has held the influential post of management editor.

Her work has encompassed an enormous range of issues.  These include the environment, the family, business management and the impact of new technology. From what she has described as a ‘career detour’ - being Women’s Page Editor of The Guardian in the early 1980s  – she gained a lasting interest in demography as the force that shapes society even more dramatically than technology.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s she covered the environment for The Economist. This was a period of resurgent interest in the subject around the Rio summit, which she attended. At a time when the long tradition of economic analysis of environmental issues had largely been forgotten, her writing – including two books, Costing the Earth and Green, Inc. – played an important role in reintroducing readers to the idea that economists had valuable things to say about environmental policy. During this period she was the first winner of the Reuter’s-Alpe Action prize for environmental journalism.

Her post as media and communications editor at the Economist spawned The Death of Distance.  First published in 1995 by the highly influential and respected Harvard Business School Press, it has since been updated and was reissued in 2001. In this, Cairncross examined the economic and social effects of technological change. The book, as much of her work, originated in a survey commissioned by The Economist. But, again a hallmark of her work, the focus is broad, notably in its exploration of the significance for individuals and societies as a whole of the falling costs of long distance telephony, mobile phones, the pre-paid phone card and the internet. These technologies are dramatically changing the way we live, according to Cairncross, especially in the developing world, where access to information and communication networks can be widened rapidly and at relatively low cost.

Cairncross has recently turned her interest to the impact of the internet and the associated communications revolution on how companies operate. Her latest book, The Company of the Future, published in 2002 is about the way corporate management is being reshaped by technology. While ‘dotcoms’ and the channels through which companies reach customers have tended to dominate discussion to date, she sees far more important and interesting challenges arising from the technology. These include how to recruit talent, foster innovation and manage alliances. She is also keen to take a historical perspective, comparing the effects of the internet to those of electricity and mass production as well as seemingly simpler innovations in office technology like the typewriter and the filing cabinet. She has also now added global migration to her portfolio of interests, undertaking an Economist survey on the subject in 2002.

Concurrent with her contribution to inquiry and debate, Cairncross has been generous with her time to government and research bodies.  During the 1990s she was a member of the School Teachers Pay review body (where she helped to devise performance-related pay for teachers), was Chair of the Office of National Statistics working party on accounting for the environment, and held advisory positions with prominent research institutions like the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research. In 2001 all this expertise was brought together when she took up the position of Chair of the Economic and Social Research Council. This is the principle grant-giving body for social science research in Britain, with an annual budget of around £87m.  As Chair she has recruited a new Chief Executive, overseen a substantial increase in the Council’s research budget and brought her journalist’s expertise to the Council’s communication strategy. There she has been concerned to ensure that British social science is not painted on too small a canvas, encouraging a focus on global issues and on what has been done in North America and continental Europe. She also has identified several clear research agendas. For example, she believes there is a great opportunity for Britain to set the pace in rigorous multi-disciplinary research on business life.  And this research effort should not be restricted to economists and traditional management academics: geographers, demographers, sociologists and others all have contributions to make.  She has also identified under-researched areas – an example being family firms, which although the dominant form of business, have received scant research attention compared with the corporate giants. Similarly, industries where the product is based on brainpower have been largely ignored.

Cairncross’s belief in the worth of economics is of very long standing. As the daughter of an eminent economist she has cited two powerful influences of her father on her own thinking: first, the pragmatism of his intellect, notably his concern with how institutions are shaped; and second, his interest in the study of management and his encouragement of its development in Scotland. She takes particular pleasure in the opportunity she had during his final years in the late 1990s to collaborate on his autobiography - Living with the Century – which is in effect a history of twentieth century economics in Britain. Another important influence close to home has been her husband of thirty years, Hamish McRae, Associate Editor of The Independent and himself a respected commentator on economic and business matters. The couple wrote two books together in the early 1970s – Capital City and The Second Great Crash. And the family tradition of a contribution to economics continues, in a way that we are pleased here to have helped.  Between 1995-98 their daughter Isabelle attended Bristol University, where she studied in the Economics Department.  Since then she has pursued a career in economics and is currently "Second Secretary Economic" in the British Embassy in Washington.

In sum, Frances Cairncross is an agenda-setting journalist and writer who has drawn our attention to key economic and social issues long before they have become fashionable.  Throughout her working life, she has made consistent use of economic and other social science research to inform her writing. Her intellectual curiosity and ability link her life and work and enable her to bring fresh insight to whatever problem she tackles.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Frances Anne Cairncross as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

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