This Saturday, 20 October 2012, it’s happy birthday to the getstats campaign – it’s two years old! As we prepare to metaphorically blow out the candles we thought we would pause to reflect on where the campaign is and what we’ve already achieved.
In launching the getstats campaign two years ago the Royal Statistical Society went back to the future. Its own Victorian founders thought statistics were necessarily ‘social’: the business of counting people, products and places put statistics at the heart of national life.
And statisticians were inevitably ‘social’, too, in the sense that they had a responsibility for the way society and the economy were shaped. Early statisticians not only sought to measure the dimensions of urban life, but to campaign for improvement.
getstats is the RSS, as the professional association of statisticians, taking responsibility for the condition of society. Britain, we say, is deficient. Not enough people understand basic stats. Our campaign is trying to change that.
How? Thanks to the Nuffield Foundation, which generously supports the campaign, we’ve worked alongside existing campaigns aimed at improving maths and stats education in schools and colleges. We’re lobbying to find a place for quantitative methods into undergraduate degrees outside the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics/medicine) subjects.
This website gives details of our task. We’re by no means alone. One of our priorities has been to link with the various organisations that are also striving to improve capacity, for example among school governors, charity trustees, local authority councillors and so on. They don’t label their work as ‘stats’, but often we’re talking about the same things.
When a councillor is presented with a paper assessing the risks around a policy; when school governors sample the opinion of a school’s parents; when candidates in the forthcoming Police and Crime Commissioner elections talk about the relationship between spending and police effectiveness …it’s a question of numbers, and dealing with them honestly and accurately.
getstats is now a presence on the web. We’re also working in Parliament, alongside MPs, peers and their staff, to help raise statistical capacity and put law making, the scrutiny of legislation and constituency work on a sounder footing.
A prime target is the media. We’ve put our shoulder to the wheel and joined others in trying to keep reporters, commentators and bloggers honest in their use of numbers and interpretation of data. In addition, we are offering those who educate tomorrow’s journalists and media staff tools to improve statistical and data capacity. ‘Data journalism’ is becoming recognised as a field with great stories. Increasingly broadcasters see numbers and stats as fit subjects for programming, in the mainstream too. So, we’re continuing to work with the Science Media Centre – supported by a grant from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – on a project to bring training in science and statistics right to the heart of both what is taught at journalism schools and what is used in the newsroom. And we’ve collaborated with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations on guidelines on using statistics in communications.
Like chancellors of the exchequer, you can be too eager to spot the green shoots of recovery or, in our case, signs that the ‘culture’ is turning towards better appreciation of statistics and quantitative capacity. But signs are encouraging. The place of maths and stats in the national curriculum is under review (in England); the shape of the subjects on offer after the age of 16 is changing. We are working with employers to get them to voice more clearly (and more audibly in schools and colleges) their stated wish to recruit people with stats and number skills. And we’re well equipped to argue the case based on our the report published earlier this year in collaboration with The Actuarial Profession.
It’s early days still. The re-engineering of British culture is going to take a while. Institutions, and curriculum makers, grind slowly. But with your help, RSS-getstats can continue – in partnership – working towards equipping people in all walks of life with the means better to understand and to prosper in the 21st century world.