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Need better social research but it doesn’t come cheap


Social science is regarded as a relatively inexpensive area of research, but human decision processes are as complex and elusive as anything in biology, physics or chemistry, and the resources needed to study them effectively are considerable.

That is the view of the man leading a ground-breaking ESRC-funded investigation of new ways to design survey questions which come as close as possible to how we actually weigh the pros and cons of issues affecting our lives.

Professor Graham Loomes, of the University of East Anglia, says today (January 28): “Ask us in isolation how much we value clean air and we will say one thing, but put the question in the context of more jobs, convenient transport or our children’s health, and the response may be quite different.”

But he warns that finding ways of conducting a more thorough investigation of people’s thoughts and feelings is likely to make heavier demands both on those questioned and the researchers involved than the sorts of surveys widely used at present. Professor Loomes sets out the case for his study in a speech at the international ‘Learning about Risk’ conference, in Canterbury, launching the ESRC Social Contexts and Responses to Risk Network (see Notes for Editors).

He says: “The stakes are high – the allocation of thousands of millions of pounds, dollars, euros and other currencies, and the human welfare implications of how the money is spent, may be significantly influenced by the results of this kind of research – but current attitudes to funding are inappropriate.”

Interviewers would need a lot more training, and respondents might have to commit to multiple and lengthy sessions more like those used now for medical trials - with costs to match.

Professor Loomes points out that many decisions about public policy are subject to political processes – which for countries with elections every three to five years may be heavily influenced by shorter-term factors.

In such a situation, basing policies on what would actually make people better off in the longer term will not necessarily be a recipe for electoral success in the shorter term, he argues. “These are not reasons for researchers to abandon trying for a more accurate view of how comfortable people really feel about things and for a better understanding of how they evaluate their experiences. “But they may be a reason why such research, however successful, may not find an easy passage through to impacting upon policy and increasing people’s wellbeing.”

Professor Loomes says: “Politicians usually have their own short-term agendas. By and large, though, civil servants are more committed to the longer-term, although they really aren’t given the money to do the job properly. However, we hope that the results of our study will be of value to those planners and policymakers who want to improve our lives in areas including health care, transport, crime prevention and the environment.”

Becky Gammon | alfa
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