Event report: How can social statistics help us fight COVID-19?

15 October 2020

Organised by The Campaign for Social Science and with support from SAGE Publishing, the panel discussion featured three speakers speaking on the role of timely, appropriately representative, and reliable social statistics in informing the COVID-19 response and recovery planning.

The panel was chaired by National Statistician Professor, Sir Ian Diamond, who shared insightful findings from the Office of National Statistics. He began the session by outlining the importance of trusted statistics during a pandemic which help provide valuable insights, equip decisions, inform public understanding, develop interventions and aid with planning and provision of services.

Angela Saini, science journalist and author of several books including her latest, Superior: The Return of Race Science, spoke about the need for more nuance when it comes to medical treatments for the BAME community.I have never seen racial myths rise and fall as quickly as they have during this pandemic,” Saini said. She pointed out that race categories are socially defined and do not bear any differences in biology, but that these social categorisations have other side effects on mental and physical wellbeing. Saini highlighted an example where being an immigrant and having fewer years of education are both associated with having higher blood pressure, which is traditionally classified as a racialised issue.

Nick Bailey, Director of the Urban Big Data Centre and Professor of Urban Studies, talked about the variety of big data sources now available to us — including user-generated content, public and private sensors, plus business and administration systems. He pointed out some of the pitfalls of these data systems, including transparency, consistency, accessibility, and bias. He made pertinent recommendations for addressing these issues; such as regulation, public stewardship, and systemic reviews and collation of existing indicators.

Finally, Professor Alison Park, Director of Research at the Economic and Research Council (ESRC), reminded us that “many of the core questions raised by the pandemic are core social science questions”. Adding weight to her statement, she noted how 40% of applications for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding to address COVID-19 were from the social sciences and that the ESRC has funded 92 projects so far. This funding is enabling researchers to study the impact COVID-19 has had on economic inequality and employment progression, mental health, education, and many other factors across different populations.

The lively Q&A session at the end of the panel highlighted a few main themes of concern to social scientists. Many questions were centred around how to correct and address the racial bias that exists in big data and health research, while others focused on how best to equip researchers with the appropriate funding and training to face these new challenges and appropriately work with various forms of data. Nick Bailey concluded by confirming the importance of data skills, saying that employers value a combination of skills across the social sciences and data sciences. Crucially, he pointed out that social science training gives graduates the skills to understand the context in which data insights will be applied.

The report is authored by Lina Ashour, Communications Manager at SAGE Publishing, and was originally published here.