Professor Peter Davis, University of Auckland, is speaking on “Valuing the social sciences: An agenda for hard times". He argues that social sciences needs to makes its case as a useful field better and also apply more quantitative measures. He gave the example of driver education in schools, where the common suggests this is useful, but research shows it is not.
Professor Davis made the point that social scientists made a bigger impact that hard science, but outside scholarly publications.
This all seems very sensible and makes me wonder what social scientists normally spend their time doing. Peter commented that many social science students do not undertake any research methods course, which I found difficult to believe. The reason was that staff worry the statistic could drive students away from social science completely (which I can believe). One quarter of the Master of Education I am doing is research methods, with courses on general, quantitative and qualitative methods (another chunk of the program is devoted to applying and communicating the results). Despite having a mathematics and computing background, I found statistics a very difficult subject and likely would have given up studies all together if that was what I first encountered. As it was, the statistics was something I knew I had to do.
I asked Professor Davis if social scientists could work more with the hard sciences, giving the example of climate change, where there is overwhelming evidence that global warming is real, but little action has been taken. He replied that the "nudge" theory, used in public health, could be applied. The idea is that people could be helped to make small changes to their behavior, rather than large, difficult, lifestyle changes.
One recently example of where social science can help is the evaluation of social welfare policy. The Australian government introduced "income management", initially targeting aboriginal communities. The idea was that government payments would be made in a way which prevented the recipient from buying alcohol. Also requirements for recipients sending their children to school were made. However, a review of the program shows that it does not reduce alcohol consumption or increase school attendance. Unfortunately, it seems likely the government will ignore the evidence and expand the program anyway, for reasons of political ideology.