A row over the use of statistics in a major government study on university access erupted this week amid claims that the research was methodologically flawed.
The three-year study tracking student participation rates across the country, which was launched last month by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, found that the chances of going to university depend on where people live, their sex and when they were born.
But the study's usefulness has been questioned by Jane Hutton, professor of statistics at Warwick University. She criticised the work for failing to define a question to be answered, wasting money and missing an opportunity to inform government policies.
Professor Hutton said: "Any statistician would have known the study was doomed to be useless before it started. There is no point in wasting large sums of money on collecting or collating data without considering how the results might be used.
"I regard research that cannot deliver useful information as unethical, as it wastes money and time."
Mark Corver, a statistician at Hefce who carried out the study, issued a strong rebuttal. He said: "We have given Professor Hutton a full response showing that many of her comments arise from an incomplete understanding of what we did.
"Our aims, which are set out in the report, were to measure young participation sufficiently accurately to be able to assess year-on-year changes both overall and between groups of advantaged and disadvantaged young people.
"Our methodology exploited existing data sets, avoiding the cost of special data collections, and was therefore cost effective. We did not seek to explain the differences in participation between advantaged and disadvantaged groups."
The study was also reviewed and endorsed by social scientists. But Harvey Goldstein, professor of statistical methods at the Institute of Education, argued that social research in general was suffering from a paucity of expertise in statistics. He said: "There are a lot of technically poor staff around. At best, that means a misuse of money; at worst, incorrect comparisons are drawn from the data. There are not enough people around and a lot of stuff happens in institutions where there is nobody to maintain quality."
Statisticians at Hefce stressed that they were not wedded to one particular research methodology and adopted a range of different approaches for projects.
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