Scientific soup

Economist Andrew Oswald's appointment to a top science journal's board highlights a blurring of the hard and soft sciences

February 4, 2010

It is a rare honour to be appointed to an editorial board of one of the world's top science journals, rarer still if you are not a scientist.

Yet this is what Andrew Oswald, a professor of economics at the University of Warwick, has achieved. He joined the board of reviewing editors of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, last month. He is one of only two economists on a board of more than 100 leading scientists and one of just a handful of British names. "There are very few British researchers of any kind on the board and I imagine no British economist has ever been appointed before," he said.

He said the role was "an intellectual responsibility", being more hands-on than is traditional for editorial boards. It will see him evaluating quantitative economics, social science and psychology typescripts, which are occasionally published in Science. Journals such as Science have become serious about accepting social science research papers only in the past few years, he said.

As a PhD student Professor Oswald said he was "taught nothing" about experimental design or method, but that research methods had changed. "Now social scientists and economists work more with physiological data and there has been a tremendous move into the use of the pure experimental method," he said.

Professor Oswald has made a name for himself studying happiness. He measures the wellbeing of populations based on indicators such as how well people sleep and suicide rates.

His group has recently been studying statistical links between income and heartbeat. "Is that economics or is that biology?" he asked, concluding that it is both. He said this mix of scientific and social science research can "blur together in a very exciting soup".

As to whether economics should be labelled a science or a social science, he said he was "doubtful" that the subject deserved its Nobel prize at the moment, although he said it was a view that made him unpopular among his peers.

He said: "Maybe in 50 years we will have enough scientific foundation ... but whether we call it a science or not doesn't really matter very much. What we need is real scientific understanding of economics. Currently we are woefully short of that, but it is changing."

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