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Hetan Shah

Today, it is my great honour to welcome Hetan Shah to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Today, Shah is the Chief Executive of The British Academy, the United Kingdom's national academy for the humanities and the social sciences, which he leads with insight, energy, and a talent for making a difference in the world in which we all live. He is also an alumnus of Birkbeck, University of London, and so has a practical as well as intellectual understanding of what the graduates and their families in this room today have been going through – the highs as well as the lows – but also the commitment needed to succeed in one's educational aims.

I remember very clearly when Shah first came to my attention. I was given a copy of his and Nic Mark's "A Well-Being Manifesto for a Flourishing Society". Their calls for action are as relevant today as they were when their Manifesto was first published in 2004. They state that "One of the key aims of a democratic government is to promote the good life", which they defined as "a flourishing society, where citizens are happy, healthy, capable and engaged". They agreed that governments "cannot directly make us happier or more engaged", but insisted that good governance can "shape the culture and society in which we live", including environments and local
communities. They asked: "what would politics look like if promoting people's well-being was one of government's main aims?" It is such a relevant and radical question for us today.

In the past few weeks, as I have been enjoying the process of reading more of Shah's incredible work and contributions, the aims he set out in his Manifesto all those years ago still seem to me to summarise his philosophy of life. The world in which we currently live would have been almost unimaginable in 2004. The past decade alone has seen numerous crises – of European belonging and democratic governance, as well as the management of an epidemic. Environmental well-being has plummeted to such an extent that, as Shah has argued elsewhere, "if everyone in the world lived as people do in Europe, we would need three planets to support us".

Education about the world around us has never been so urgent. And Shah is a great believer in education. He graduated from the University of Oxford in 1996 with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics then earned a postgraduate diploma at Nottingham Law School. He joined us here at Birkbeck between 2000 and 2002 to do a degree in Contemporary History and Politics, where he studied (amongst other topics), Soviet history, politics and development in post-colonial societies, empire and the state, and population movements, minorities and genocide. The following year, he followed his MA by doing a Birkbeck postgraduate certificate in economics. It was during this time that he honed some of the skills that were to become so important in his later career – such as, juggling working-life and studying, absorbing huge amounts of information quickly and reliably, and learning how to pack a nutritious dinner to eat before evening classes.

This education was a stepping-stone to many of his later achievements. There is no time in a short oration as this one to list all these achievements so I hope he will forgive me for mentioning only some of the highlights.

Shah was Deputy Chair of the Ada Lovelace Institute, an independent organization working to ensure that Big Data, AI, and machine learning actually works to benefit people and communities in ethically rigorous and sustainable ways. The Institute was named after the early nineteenth century mathematician and computer visionary Ada Lovelace. What she would not have imagined was the ethical intricacies that would come with computing powers, including the risk that the public would come to mistrust the data because of politicised uses and misuses. When data spreads into every aspect of people's lives, the need for statistical analysis tools that are accurate, reliable, and objective is important. This is a central aim of the Ada Lovelace Institute.

Shah is also Chair of the The Friends Provident Foundation Board of Trustees that provides grants to promote a fairer economy. Its Quaker legacy ensures that "community and stewardship of the Earth" are fundamental tenets. It is listed among the 300 largest UK foundations by size of giving. Topics include human and workers' rights, climate change, racial economic justice, regional inequalities, corporate investment behaviour, tax justice, and growing community assets. Shah was a member of the Institute for Public Policy Research's Commission on Economic Justice, which was a non-party political commission bringing together the expertise of experts to explore the challenges facing the UK economy and making recommendations for reform. As this all suggests, central to his philosophy is the view that better data – qualitative as well as quantitative – is crucial if the fundamental problems in society are to be tackled effectively.

Let me illustrate this by turning to his work as a member of the Independent Social Metrics Commission chaired by Baroness Phillipa Stroud. The Commission drew together experts from a range of fields and political backgrounds to explore better ways of measuring poverty. In their 2018 report, they found that, using their new way of measuring poverty, a staggering 14.2 million people in the UK were living in poverty. This was pretty much in-line with the old statistics. However, their new ways of measuring excluded households with savings or shares, which could alleviate immediate poverty. More importantly, it included "inescapable costs" such as childcare and the extra costs of disability. This exposed the fact that an extremely high number of households that were experiencing poverty containing children and nearly half the households classed as poor cared for someone with a disability. Tackling such levels of poverty is a highly fraught political question – solutions vary dramatically across party-political lines. However, as Shah forcefully argues, "our national efforts will be in vain if our statistics misidentify the people with the greatest needs. What gets measured can drive policy. With a better handle on the types of people that are poor, we can design better interventions to reach and support them".

Such interests were very much at the forefront of his work when he served as Executive Director of the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) from 2011 to 2019. At that time, the Society had nearly 10,000 members all around the world and a £2.5 million turnover. He was responsible for the Society's overall strategy and management. It was a job well-suited to his talents. He wasn't a statistician but a policy and communications expert, with a more than decade of experience running organisations. While there, he introduced "Statistics of the Year". His initiative called the "Data Manifesto" was an attempt to persuade politicians as well as the general public of the important of robust evidence in a thriving democracy. His "Statistical Ambassadors" paired up statisticians with charities and the media to engage with wider publics. He introduced the RSS's "10-Point Data Manifesto", which stated that "what steam was to the 19th century, and oil has been to the 20th, data is to the 21st. It's the driver of prosperity, the revolutionary resource that is transforming the nature of economic activity, the capability that differentiates successful from unsuccessful societies".

Data allows for better policymaking (including better reliability as well as more effective use of evidence, which will require improving statistical literacy), data as a driver of productivity and prosperity ("skill up the nation"), and data to stabilize democracy and trustworthiness (including countering misinformation). Shah believes that it is possible to work for more equitable worlds. He is withering about the way some companies incorrectly report their gender pay gap, manipulating statistics to make them look significantly more progressive than they are in reality. In 2019, he boldly pointed out that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee was conducting evidence sessions in which not one female was invited to appear. Shah linked his criticism to the work of feminist Caroline Criado-Perez, who has shown the risks to women of using male-orientated data – these include the fact that dummies used in testing cars involved in accidents were based on the average male body size, so did not accurately model the impact for female victims of car accidents.

When Shah left the RSS in 2019 to take over as Executive Director of The British Academy, he wasn't to predict that his job would commence around the same time as COVID-19. Shah's appointment as the 10th executive director in the BA's 117-year history, took place without him ever meeting his colleagues in person! Well, at least for a couple of years. On taking up this job, Shah emphasised his belief that "the humanities and social sciences are a key way in which we can understand ourselves as a changing society." His ambition was to make the British Academy "a hub for curious minds", noting the need for the Academy to "inform the national conversation
about the big issues of the day". The SHAPE disciplines (social sciences, humanities, and the arts for people and the economy) have been central in helping us respond to the Covid epidemic: in his words, "behaviour[al] change... requires a deep understanding of narratives, of storytelling, of psychology, of history". He insists that "Epidemics are social as well as biological phenomena", calling for closer dialogue between SHAPE and STEM professionals.

But, finally, what about the man? I have gossip stating that he seems to enjoy trashy television and at one team meeting dropped references to the hip hop band Salt N Peppa. Admittedly: I cannot vouch for the truth of this gossip. But we do know, though, is that he is a devoted family man, with two children. His wife is also a charity CEO. He always takes annual leave for half terms and school holidays, during which the family travel around the UK. His extended family is also important to him. Staff at the British Academy speak of him with awe. He is "fair-handed in everything he does. Thoughtful and considered, thinking through the different angles and consulting. He has high standards of everyone he works with and is leading the British Academy in its transformation into a more open institution with real relevance to the world". He "genuinely care[s] about the people that he works with and their wellbeing". His flexible working policy is very popular with staff. Yet another told me that despite a packed diary "he is always approachable and replies to queries quickly".

In short, Hetan Shah is a man on a mission to contribute positively to the world in which we all live. We share his dedication to education at the highest level, and are thrilled and proud that he has agreed to join our College as a Fellow.