October 2020 Newsletter – Geoff Mason

Geoff Mason, who passed away in June after a long and dignified fight against cancer, had been since 1989 Senior, Principal Research Fellow and then Fellow at NIESR and was a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Research on Learning and Life Chances (LLAKES), UCL Institute of Education.  He was deeply interested in productivity, innovation, education, training and labour markets.  He led research on productivity, innovation and skills in the UK, US, France and Germany; employer demand for skills in the UK; and a comparative study of vocational education and training systems in seven European countries.  The work was continuously funded by academic research councils, government departments and foundations in the UK, US and New Zealand and by European Union agencies, which is by itself a remarkable achievement these days.

As was so often the case we benefitted from a permanent arrival from the Commonwealth.  Geoff was born in March 1949 in Dunedin, New Zealand, subsequently attended universities in Auckland and Christchurch (New Zealand) and then Birkbeck College, London.  In a long and distinguished career, professionalism and simplicity were the two dominant virtues that colleagues have repeated in conversations about him.  He personified the very concept of an ‘intellectual craftsman’ constantly seeking ways to hone and apply his social science expertise to ‘problems of substance’.  In Geoff’s case he was most interested in the comparative performance of labour market and industrial policies in the UK. 

Those who collaborated with him, particularly the non-economists, found it a tough but exhilarating experience because he questioned everything that was said or written and expected the return of this favour.  He was also refreshing because, despite his restless pursuit of practical policies to support economic and societal improvements, he was never cynical. Among his many publications, his 2014 paper on rethinking industrial policy design in the UK stands out.  At its heart is an attempt to understand why many UK firms struggle to engage in innovation rather than assuming that all employers are alike.  It provides a lucid and measured appraisal of UK policy initiatives and programmes, offers comparisons with other countries, and provides clear and practical recommendations.  The paper captures Geoff’s gifts for combining rigorous research with the need to communicate to a wide audience

Two stories are worth repeating.  Once, in St Albans (his home), at a pub lunch at which regressions were being run for a paper, hours were spent figuring out how to bootstrap standard errors in a multiple equation system with panel data.  Eventually Geoff sorted out this problem with the help of some much-needed liquidity but only to realise that he and his co-workers had become the centre of considerable mocking from a pack of hunters with their cry of hounds.  He cared not a jot.  But with the subsequent ban on hunting, Geoff had the last laugh. 

More recently, a paper on education systems was presented in Parliament.  This led to conversations with his co-author about the main channels of influence by which education and skills affect economic performance.  The research compared the role played by education and training institutions, including school, and the vocational systems, in the UK and a number of countries.  He was already very ill but undertook the review with enthusiasm and deployed and developed well the ideas of 'absorptive capacity' in this context.  Technical skills, deep understanding and dedication led to considerable and ongoing policy insights.

His projects have led to many different publications, ranging from academic articles in refereed journals and book chapters to government department research reports and occasional articles in national newspapers. Academic publications include articles in Labour Economics, Education Economics, Research Policy, Economics of Innovation and New Technology, Industry and Innovation, Work, Employment and Society and Journal of Education and Work. 

His work on the graduate labour market has been widely cited in UK public policy debates and contributed to his being invited to work as Research Advisor to the National Skills Task Force and to serve on the Royal Society Working Group on Higher Education. He also served on academic panels for the Cabinet Office’s Workforce Development Project and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.  Very reassuringly, he had a trial period as apart-time civil servant but decided that he preferred working at NIESR full time, because he could get more done.  We shall miss him.  He leaves behind a loving partner, Mavis, two sons, Robbie and Viv, one granddaughter, Grace,  and many, many happy memories.

Jagjit Chadha, Director, National Institute of Economic and Social Research