With the sound of student protest ringing in my ears in London – and some of it even carrying across the Irish sea – the crisis is beginning to feel less like an arcane piece of economic theory, and instead become a tangible fear about the future. Research budgets will be a part of the cuts, and many of us will understandably be fearing for our own careers. But if we somehow manage to cling on to a life in research by our fingertips, then what is it that we should be doing within our ivory towers as the inequalities around us multiply?
I was jolted into thinking about this by a senior colleague of mine at LSE (and one of my role models), who recently told me that they felt that their previous three years of research had been a waste. All this tinkering with theoretical detail just didn’t seem to matter when real people’s lives are being so badly affected by job losses and benefit cuts. (My colleague was actually worrying over nothing as their work is highly practical theoretical tinkering – but the concern is a real one).
It’s tempting to delve into the fascinating philosophical debates about what a ‘well-ordered science’ would look like (to use Philip Kitcher’s phrase) – but I’ll hold these conceptual musings back for another time. Instead, here are my four thoughts on what inequality-concerned social scientists can do:
- Describe the world truthfully. Inevitably there will be innumerable falsehoods being spread around by those responsible for the cuts. In the UK we’ve already seen many examples of this, not least the bizarre claim by the deputy Prime Minister that the Institute of Fiscal Studies – without doubt the most respected economic think-tank in the UK – was talking ‘distorted nonsense’ in their claim that the cuts were not progressive. The DWP (which is responsible for welfare payments) has already been forced to admit that statistics claimed to come from the Office of National Statistics instead came from FindAProperty.com. More seriously, the Head of the UK Statistics Authority has rapped the DWP over the knuckles for ‘serious deficiencies’ in their use of statistics.
In this climate, the role of researchers as defenders of the truth is crucial. Nice though it is to make causal claims, sometimes simple descriptions of the world have a power beyond that of even the fanciest statistical models.
- Defend the data necessary to do this. There are going to be cuts to Government surveys, and these are the bedrock on which much UK social science is built. The Office of National Statistics is currently consulting on what to cut – so we should loudly stand up for the most important sources on different inequalities. There’s a meeting at the Royal Statistical Society next week for anyone in London who wants to know more.
- Evaluate the impact of the cuts on disadvantaged groups – and on inequality in the long-term. This is the most obviously necessary task that’s facing us: we need to look at what was done, and figure out what effect it had on who. There will be some cuts subject to dire warnings that weren’t actually that bad – and others that were quietly disastrous… And we need to show which is which. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of focusing entirely on the short-term, as cuts in middle-class benefits will also have harmful long-term impacts on the future of inequality in the UK – as I’ve argued both on Inequalities and elsewhere.
- Generate ideas for the post-crisis world. When the deficit has been reduced we will have a much-reduced welfare state with some obvious holes. For thinkers on the left, there will be a ‘policy window’ in which radical ideas can be adopted. If we only start thinking of these at the time, then we’re likely to be too late. This is the lesson of the current UK coalition, where right-wing think-tanks like the Centre for Social Justice carefully prepared policies that the Conservatives are now implementing – and which the Tories failed to do in their wilderness years in opposition.
Criticisms/further suggestions in the comments below would be welcome though – at the very least, these are the issues that will frame the next five years of my life, once I pass the (significant) hurdle of finding someone to employ me…