Mention quantitive methods to any social science student and the chances are they’ll roll their eyes, mutter something about number crunching and move hastily on to something they find more interesting.
The consequence is that many social science students have limited quantitive skills and even less confidence using them in the real world.
Yet quantitive methods create objectivity where subjectivity could influence results; they also produce fascinating and important insights into our lives that affect all our futures. Meanwhile, information technology, the web and computing power have revolutionised the amount and quality of data available and made meaningful analysis simpler and faster. Until recently it took years of effort to collect, analyse and publish the results of a population census, which was one reason why they happened only once a decade.
Quantitive methods skills are highly transferable and these graduates are increasingly sought by employers across all sectors from academia to charities, from government to big business.
The good news is that supporting quantitive skills is high on RCUK’s agenda. In the social sciences, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the British Academy are jointly investing £1.7m to develop the quantitive methods curriculum, integrate the teaching into the undergraduate syllabus, and expand the number and quality of teachers. We hope this will help dispel the notion these skills are dry or even career-limiting.
We need a new generation of social scientists who have the skills to work in any domain they choose, and the innovations in undergraduate teaching will push through into postgraduate training and thus open up new horizons.
Quantitive methods make possible large-scale social studies such as Understanding Society, which published its first findings earlier this year. Funded by the ESRC, and run by the Institute for Social and Economic Research( ISER), it offers an unprecedented insight into 40,000 UK households as they respond to regional, national and international change. It follows individuals overtime, regularly collecting data about participants.
It will provide a unique and enduring portrait of 21stcentury British society for generations to come. Understanding Society is just one area of groundbreaking research currently taking place in UK universities.
It’s a focus of Big Ideas For The Future, a new report from RCUK and Universities UK that will be released as part of Universities Week (13 to 19 June).
The report focuses on a variety of research because if we are to tackle future challenges, we need to be able to apply a broad mix of the physical, natural, biological, medical and social sciences, as well as engineering and the arts and humanities.
The research being worked on in UK universities, as showcased by Big Ideas For The Future, will have a profound impact on our lives and the growth, prosperity and wellbeing of the UK, and quantitive methods-trained social scientists will have an exciting part to play in it.
For more information about the new ESRC/HEFCE schemes, go to www.esrc.ac.uk/QMinitiative.