Social scientists aim to save 'fragile flower' from retrenchment frost

Academics prepare to defend the discipline from the pruning scissors. Matthew Reisz reports

March 11, 2010

Social scientists will warn politicians that their discipline is a "fragile flower" that must be protected as they respond to the major challenges facing the UK.

The role of social science research is coming under increasing scrutiny as the government faces up to the UK's dire financial situation and starts to cut public spending to tackle the budget deficit.

Next week, researchers are being given the chance to put their case to David Willetts, the Conservative shadow universities secretary, at a discussion organised by the British Academy and SAGE Publications in association with Times Higher Education.

Among the participants in the discussion, "Towards a Better Tomorrow?", is Ian Diamond, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council.

He will argue that "although the quality of UK social science is impeccable, and has already made a major contribution to public health, the economy, the environment and energy, it is in many areas a fragile flower".

Despite this fragility, Professor Diamond will highlight recent advances in the discipline that promise a great deal.

He will point out that "there are many things research can do now that it couldn't do two or three years ago".

"We have a much greater ability to analyse very large datasets and merge data from different sources so as to address new questions, and we have a new generation geared to using these resources in an exciting way," he said.

What we can do for our country

Other participants will discuss the specific benefits that their own areas of research can offer the UK.

Harvey Goldstein, professor of social statistics at the University of Bristol, will focus on the issue of school performance tables. Since such rankings are inevitably inaccurate, it is inappropriate to use them to "name and shame" individual schools, he will argue.

But, as Professor Goldstein and colleagues demonstrated in a project in Hampshire, league tables can also be used "to give feedback to school heads, to help identify and address problems in a non-threatening way. They can be a positive asset when adopted as screening instruments - a bit like medical screening."

The key message for policymakers, Professor Goldstein will argue, is that they must enter into a dialogue with the research community.

"Scientific research is a continuing process and today's idea may be overthrown over time. Policymakers need to get a sense of the debate," he will say.

Sir Michael Rutter, professor of developmental psychopathology at the Institute of Psychiatry, will draw on the results of a report by a British Academy working party he chaired on social science and family policy to make a similar point.

Policymaking inevitably takes place "at the interface between values and science", Professor Rutter will argue, and while "science cannot determine values", it can "check the validity of observations, indicate which associations are likely to reflect causation and provide evidence of the likely efficacy of proposed remedies".

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