Do we need a statistics campaign?

David Walker is director of gestats. A former journalist, he is chair of the methods and infrastructure committee at the Economic and Social Research Council.

Getstats is both the issue and the midwife of a growing national consensus. There is deepening agreement that the UK, and its constituent territories, need a more numerate population …if the economy is to be rebalanced, productivity to increase, families and households to cope with the quantities of modern life and together we are to talk to one another sensibly about risk and probability and so devise lasting policies for climate change, energy and ageing.

The gestats campaign is backed by the Royal Statistical Society and supported financially by the Nuffield Foundation, which has a long track record in the field. But we are less a spearhead than an exercise in joining together existing initiatives and projects, of which there are many.

Maths and Growth

The case for more and better numerical capacity has been well made. Ten years ago the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, described Whitehall’s shortage of analytical (quantitative) capacity in a report he wrote called Adding it up; subsequent ‘capability reviews’ of departments, let alone successive reports by the National Audit Office confirmed his diagnosis

In 2004 Professor Adrian Smith, now director general of knowledge and innovation at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills talked about the ‘threat to innovation’ from shortfalls in mathematical and statistical capacity in his inquiry into post-14 maths education

Last year, the Nuffield Foundation published a study showing how distinctive England and Wales and Northern Ireland are in the strikingly small proportion of young people who continue any study of maths after the age of 16. Studying maths guarantees nothing in terms of national prosperity, but it is hard to resist the intuitive association between growth, economic potential and a fuller post-16 education.

Such inquiries have provoked a policy response. The school curriculum is under review and the post-16 course of studies ditto. Argument will go on about the place of statistics and data handling in crowded school timetables, and over what level of quantitative capacity is needed in pre-employment training and apprenticeships – especially if UK manufacturing industry is to blossom.

Getstats will be involved in these debates, but without losing sight of where we are agreed – and there is already a wide coming together on the need to upskill. For example, as the shape of journalism shifts and online reporting and comment rise, a growing professional prerequisite is how to break down and represent (visualize) data sets. Journalism educators clamour to build into their courses new training in numbers.

Mobilizing Resources

As, in England, the government moves to establish elected police and crime commissioners in a context of public spending cuts, attention shifts to what we know about the effectiveness of police forces in detecting and preventing crime. And to the capacity of police officers and managers in running numbers and assessing evidence.

Among schools governors, elected local authority members, parliamentarians, as in professional bodies outside the STEM environment, the conviction grows that we need deeper capacity to appraise information, assimilate data and – where appropriate – quantify.

So getstats is knocking on open doors. Our task becomes one of mobilizing resources – working with journalism educators to devise an assessment tool for their students and with local authority scrutiny committees and auditors to improve understanding of performance data.

We are not ignoring the debate within STEM about student choices, teaching capacity but focusing instead on the wider field, including how well prepared non STEM students in higher education institutions are. We are working with, for example, the British Academy and the Economic and Social Research Council on quantitative skills in such subjects as geography and sociology.

The Getstats campaign is cognate with CaSE. We have no time for either/or. A better-numbered Britain would be good for science and engineering, both in the supply of talent and in public understanding and debate.

We start optimistically. With such social facts as the obsession with numbers – yes – but in restrictive spheres. Take sport. Next year, 2012, will be dominated by tight, quantitative analysis of performance on track and field just as, once the English football season gets going again, fan talk will be numbers driven. How to break interest in sports numbers out into the wider culture – now there’s a task.

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