To serve the public (2 of 2)

January 10, 2013

Universities play a key role in providing many professional qualifications but Jonathan Shepherd rightly highlights the need for graduate "practitioner-scientists" doing real-world research in our public services. Social science skills (such as economics, social policy, organisational behaviour) are in desperately short supply at this time of austerity across the public sector, when change management ought to be driven less by dogma and more by evidence.

When making decisions within the public sector, improved quantitative skills would not only make a positive difference to spending taxpayers' money or deploying the practitioner workforce efficiently but also to understanding the priorities of service users. This is the International Year of Statistics. For university research to provide "knowledge production and transfer", UK social scientists would do well to embrace international developments.

Shepherd's article is not up to date about one thing: the Economic and Social Research Council. Jointly with the Nuffield Foundation and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the ESRC is taking a lead on improving the applicability of social science, and the ESRC devotes a section of its annual magazine Britain in 2013 to public services.

National ambitions need to be matched by local innovation. At the University of Cambridge, for example, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities seeks to inspire new thinking about the "public benefit" with a series of lectures on active citizenship and public engagement (beginning on 21 January).

Woody Caan, Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health

Jerome Carson, Professor of psychology, University of Bolton.

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