Quantitative Skills (QS) give ‘empirical grit’ to the work of charities and third sector organisations. Here, Sharon Witherspoon, Director of the Nuffield Foundation and 2011 Winner of the British Academy President’s Medal and Aleks Collingwood, Programme Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, explain how QS have been crucial to their careers.
“Looking at numbers, related to slavery, the civil rights movement and so on, suddenly gave me a sense of scale that no individual account, however moving, had conveyed. Having some empirical grit – which could potentially disprove cherished beliefs and sometimes reveal hidden patterns – became exciting.”
Tell us about your studies and how you started learning QS.
I might not have taken maths if it hadn’t been compulsory at High School. At university, I ‘majored’ in Sociology but again (because of the US system), I had a broader curriculum, including economics, political philosophy, history and statistics. I then went to LSE for postgraduate work in Historical Sociology.
What made you decide to take your QS skills to higher levels?
I started studying Social Science because I wanted to change the world! Gradually, I came to see that my interests and strengths were in trying to understanding what causes what – which seems important if you want to know how to change things. That understanding requires good QS. The pay-off is often wonderful: you can suddenly get a real sense that hidden patterns are being revealed.
What do you think QS give you that other skills don’t?
One of the things that QS brings is an insistence on thinking through how to measure – and what you’re measuring – as precisely as you can. And it helps one think about deeper social processes—the extent to which something ‘causes’ something, or whether there are unmeasured differences that need to be taken into account. It is virtually never the case that the numbers alone give the answers – they are part of a chain of reasoning that can be challenged at each step of the way – yet, numbers can help to unpick those complex chains of reasons. So it is good training whatever you go on to do.
How have you used QS in your working life?
At the Nuffield Foundation, we research social, economic and educational issues and study what interventions might improve the lives of disadvantaged families. We owe it to them to use the best and widest range of evidence. So I am still interested in social change – but based on evidence and understanding. And in the round, that simply requires QS.
Statistics & Quantitative Specialist, Programme Manager, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Tell us about your studies
My first degree was in Anthropology and Statistics. This combination was the starting block that enabled me to enjoy a very colourful career in quantitative research over the last 17 years.
How did you use your QS once you graduated?
I have worked for universities researching the Mediterranean diet in relation to the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer survival rates and birth outcomes of refugees. I looked at how the metabolic rate changes under famine conditions for the World Health Organisation. In the South Pacific, I set up a research office for a Community Educational Theatre Group on the island of Vanuatu, designing and carrying out surveys on subjects as diverse as family planning methods and turtle conservation. I then worked for the Vanuatu Government Stats Office co-running the National Population and Housing Census – designing the census questionnaire and training up 750 enumerators. In the middle of this I did an MSc in Demography and Health to boost my QS.
And how have you used your QS since then?
The last ten years have been spent in the UK. I was a child health and medical research analyst and author of Social Trends at the Office of National Statistics. I then moved to NatCen looking at the characteristics of bullying victims and wellbeing of children. Now I work for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the areas of Poverty, Place and our Ageing Society – I would say this is one of my favourite jobs yet.
These case studies represent a selection from the British Academy’s Stand Out and Be Counted booklet.