'Pure' may be too simple, warn social scientists

July 15, 2010

Social science researchers should not be afraid to get involved in partisan debates, a conference has heard.

Kate Pickett, a professor in the department of health sciences at the University of York, told the Economic and Social Research Council's research methods festival last week that scholars had for too long been seen as "people who sit in ivory towers producing objective, balanced and pure" research.

She was backed up by Richard Wilkinson, emeritus professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, who said that pure objectivity was impossible.

"All the time there is a bit of evidence that doesn't fit the theory and there is no rational way of deciding whether to give up the theory or see what's wrong with the piece of evidence. So scientists need a hard core to their theory that they won't allow to be refuted: otherwise their research programme lacks any sense of traction," he said.

Nissa Finney, research Fellow at the Centre for Census and Survey Research at the University of Manchester, also said her personal values could not be detached from her work.

But Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, warned against setting out to "disprove all the arguments you don't like" and said it was "far too easy" for social scientists to be criticised for political bias. He suggested that academics should use think tanks to communicate their research and to broker meetings where "political movers and shakers" would be "forced to think through the powerful evidence you are presenting".

Dr Finney admitted that she did not have any political contacts and said she spent an "immense" amount of time doing communication work for which she was not trained. "The ESRC needs to think about how it will support people to do this if it continues down the route (of rewarding the anticipated impact of research)," she said.


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