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.

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