To serve the public (1 or 2)

January 10, 2013

Jonathan Shepherd makes a number of strong points in his article calling for joined-up thinking in research for public services ("Appliance of social science", 3 January), but he also commits a massive error based on the assumption that there is only one rigorous way to do research. He is entirely right in asking research councils to fund more applied work (although he may find that they are already well down that road) and in asking for researchers to find ways of making their work relevant to the improvement of public services as well as to be relevant to the private sector's needs.

However, he then falls into a trap that many clinicians seem inexorably drawn to. He notes that "rigorous research" is needed in evidence production for public services but seems to think that this can happen only through "essential real-world experiments" that "many social scientists" are reluctant to carry out because of "an inability to design and manage field trials, illusory concerns about supposedly insurmountable ethical barriers or misguided scepticism about the objective value of the experimental methods pioneered in agriculture and medicine". He then takes the Economic and Social Research Council to task for making the same errors.

We can all agree on the need to carry out rigorous applied research and on the need for stronger links between the academy and public service improvement, but believing that there is only one rigorous way of conducting research, and that its application can resolve the complex and even "wicked" problems involved in public services, is to display the kind of epistemic arrogance and methodological ignorance that often blocks innovative applied work getting funded. There is more than one way of conducting rigorous applied social science, and the all-too-common belief of clinicians that only trials and experiments represent good research is often the biggest barrier to getting good work done.

Ian Greener, Professor in the School of Applied Social Sciences, Director of the ESRC North East Doctoral Training Centre, Durham University.

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