Q‑Step Centres won’t cover statistical gaps, expert says

Effort to improve quantitative skills in social sciences must go farther, John MacInnes says

November 14, 2013

Universities are not equipping social science students with the skills to make evidence-based decisions, and 15 specialist statistical training centres launched last month do not go far enough to address the problem.

That is the view of John MacInnes, professor of sociology and Economic and Social Research Council strategic adviser on quantitative methods training at the University of Edinburgh.

The ESRC joined forces last year with the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Nuffield Foundation to invite bids for centres of excellence in quantitative methods training, known as Q-Step Centres. The centres are charged with reforming the undergraduate curriculum and ensuring that departments pay more attention to methodology in teaching statistics.

It was announced last month that funding of £20 million to set up the centres would be split between 15 universities, most of them in the Russell Group.

The centres are a step in the right direction, Professor MacInnes told Times Higher Education at Making Social Science Count, a panel held at the Royal Statistical Society on 7 November. But the initiative, he said, does not go far enough. “That is [only] 15 centres between 100 or so universities in the UK.”

Research he conducted in 2009 found only “marginal” amounts of statistics in social science degree content. If the situation does not improve, he argued, society will have decision-makers unable to consider evidence properly.

“We have got lots of people in public life and in the private sector who are making decisions about risk and uncertainty, statistical decision, without even elementary training in statistical concepts,” he said.

Professor MacInnes traced the roots of the problem to the rapid expansion of the social sciences in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “A whole cohort of people were recruited with little or no methodological training,” he added. This led to a “cultural turn” in which methodology was branded irrelevant.

He added: “In my view, that approach to science is wrong-headed – it reduces science to just an exchange of opinion.”

holly.else@tsleducation.com

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