A solution looking for a question

The subtitle of the event was what got me interested: “what do civil society and policymakers want from science?”

A venerable panel at the even-more venerable Royal Society in London spoke yesterday about what to do with the world now the Millenium Development Goals are due for renewal. How do we set an agenda which will be both right for the people involved and listened/adhered to by people whose mobilisation is so important?

Although all the speakers (Michael Anderson, Amina Mohammed, Dominic Haslam and minor-internet-celebrity Duncan Green) spoke entertainingly and passionately throughout, several specifics really made my ears prick up.

Firstly that much of the conversation was about disaggregating data. I’ve talked before about how working with data is ‘hard’, but even harder is trying to guess at the underlying structure of data which has been agreggated beyond all recognition. (Although we are used to aggregation: the biggest aggregator of them all, GDP, is still used to ‘describe’ a country’s economy. An absurd compressing of complexity into a simple box, equivalent to describing General Relativity in a single tweet.) There was some talk about how mobile technology will help us gather this data, but heaven help the research assistant whose job it is to actual deal with macro data at a micro level.

Secondly, Green (whose name I consistently spell with a terminal ‘E’, perhaps with the spectre of this famous, and famously terrifying, book on my shoulder*) mentioned complexity science specifically by name, although the chair, Sir John Beddington was quick to counter that complexity science offered no solutions. I fear he’s probably right, but it’s going to be fun trying nevertheless.

Finally, and most importantly, the subtitle of the evening itself. What do well-informed but non-technical people (policymakers etc.) want of poorly-informed but highly-technical people (researchers; me)?

It struck me suddenly as absurd that I, with the time, skills, computing power and helpful colleagues, endowed with piles of data and the software and experience to deal with it, am allowed to set my own research questions! I see it as a perfect setting for a benefits-to-trade solution: Civil society have burning questions that they need answering, questions which, if answered, would have a direct impact on people’s lives, and researchers have all the data and want nothing more than a juicy research question.

Why should I have access to data, literature, software and technical knowledge and be allowed to simply analyse the data in a way that interests me?.

We need to find a way of getting the people who are looking for answers together with those of us looking for questions.

* As an unrelated aside, I did my quantitative economics Masters at a university in Germany and was hugely entertained to discover that the Germans pronounce the great man’s name as “Greenie”.


Author: Rob Levy

Economist at NEF. Former teaching Fellow in Economics at UCL and Bristol University. Recently submitted my PhD. We'll see what happens...

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