Magazine article Times Higher Education

Quantitative Easing

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Quantitative Easing

Article excerpt

The UK's data-skills gap must be filled for the good of the social sciences and society at large, argues Ian Diamond.

One of the pillars of world-class UK social science has been its empirical research. Social scientists have used innovative data-collection methods and analysis to further greatly our understanding of social patterns.

Quantitative UK social science has a global reach: whether it is the European Social Survey, masterminded in the UK by the late Sir Roger Jowell, or the innovative analyses in the 1980s led by John Hobcraft and John McDonald that demonstrated the worldwide relationship between short birth intervals and infant mortality, our social scientists have been expert in the development and application of statistical methods to address the disciplines' challenges.

The UK is already blessed with some of the richest data in the world: the new large panel survey Understanding Society; the magnificent information collected by the Office for National Statistics; and (of course) the series of cohort studies that have enabled path-breaking research on family formation and dissolution, education and its impact on later life chances, and the challenges of an ageing society. As we move through a century in which data will be increasingly available, the opportunities for quantitative methods become compelling.

Yet amid this wealth of opportunity lurk real threats. In Society Counts, a position statement published this week, the British Academy collates the evidence, highlighting that the majority of graduates are leaving university with inadequate quantitative skills - and with little confidence in using what skills they have. This leads to a persistent, negative cycle: recent international reviews of political science and sociology have noted the relative scarcity of top-class quantitative skills in the UK.

It is also a problem for the graduates themselves. The CBI has noted that the ability to "interpret and respond to quantitative data" is a core skill for the workplace and that two-thirds of its members are concerned about their employees' inability to spot basic data errors. As our graduates compete in an increasingly challenging and international labour market, they must have the skills to succeed.

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