Social scientists and politicians ‘falling short’ on policymaking

Governments are often right to be sceptical about the over-ambitious claims of social scientists, a leading sociologist has argued.

November 1, 2011

In a discussion last night on how social scientists and government can work together to strengthen public trust in scientific evidence, Anthony Heath, university professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge, said politicians often ignored the full range of evidence and relied on “stylised facts”, such as the notion that “social mobility has declined”.

Yet social scientists had to take much of the blame for a lack of interest in their ideas, he suggested, since many were “wedded to their own pet theory or model”, failed to communicate clearly, or blurred the line between science and advocacy.

Partly to blame for this, continued Professor Heath, were incentive structures which “encourage self-promotion, technical sophistication and over-claiming to achieve ‘impact’”.

Instead, he argued, solid contributions to knowledge should be rewarded above “innovative unvalidated theory”.

And given that “social science rarely provides an adequate basis for making policy decisions”, other journals should follow the lead of the British Medical Journal and include a section on “reasons for caution” when presenting results.

The discussion was organised by journal publisher SAGE and the British Academy, with Times Higher Education as media partner.

Professor Heath was joined by Jenny Dibden, joint head of the Government Social Research Service, who called for policy-making to be “less of a closed world” and for “greater interchange between early-career academics and civil servants”.

Another participant, Julian Huppert, a former research scientist who is now Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, believed there was a good case for greater public education in critical thinking and statistics.

Yet there were no votes in evidence-based policy, he noted – the electorate would always care more about the results of the policy-making process than how politicians got there.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Recruitment - Human Resources Office

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Outreach Officer

Gsm London

Professorship in Geomatics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Professor of European History

Newcastle University

Head of Department

University Of Chichester
See all jobs

Most Commented

men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

Mitch Blunt illustration (23 March 2017)

Without more conservative perspectives in the academy, lawmakers will increasingly ignore and potentially defund social science, says Musa al-Gharbi

sitting by statue

Institutions told they have a ‘culture of excluding postgraduates’ in wake of damning study