Leader: Time to crunch some numbers

January 27, 2006

The Economic and Social Research Council is to be congratulated for carrying out such a comprehensive review of the prospects for the subjects in its care. It is all too easy in popular disciplines to ignore looming threats - and the ESRC's report identifies several. The picture is complex because the social sciences do not all face the same difficulties, but there are some common threads. One, inevitably, is money, although the council would be unwise to focus all its attention on this perennial source of discontent. It is the ESRC's job to lobby for its researchers, but comparisons with the (expensive) medical and natural sciences are pointless. The social sciences and humanities will always be the poor relations in this research family, and some of the problems identified in the report will not be solved by funding alone.

An obvious example is the age profile of academics in subjects facing unprecedented retirement rates over the next decade. Salary bills may fall as a result, at least temporarily, but can recruits of sufficient quality be found to plug the gaps? It is hardly a surprise that this challenge is around the corner, but too little has been done to prepare for it. And the increasing use of fixed-term contracts is making matters worse.

The other important area in which university departments have been their own worst enemies is the development of quantitative skills. The report rightly identifies this as a weakness in UK social science, and one that will be difficult to put right because so few students (and therefore young academics) have received adequate training in recent years. The compulsory statistical qualification that was a feature of some social science degrees 20 years ago has become a distant memory. Such courses were sacrificed in the name of increased student choice with the spread of modular degrees, and now there is too little demand for even some postgraduate programmes to run. Good social science demands quantitative expertise, and departments should put it back onto the core curriculum before a key skill is further diminished.

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