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On The Role Of A Chief Social Scientist – A Response

Andrew Glover (RMIT)

Recently on this blog, TASA president Katie Hughes made the case as to why Australia should create a position for a chief social scientist. Katie argued that Australia needed someone who could publicly speak with authority about issues related to social science, much as the chief scientist does currently about issues related to science. I share this desire as well, as I would like to see more sociological thinking in governance, and policy based on robust evidence provided by the social sciences. However, I think this is a more difficult task than Katie presents, and the example she provides of the Safe Schools debate demonstrates why.

Katie characterised the debate as being agitated by Cory Bernadi & other conservative politicians, who’s alleged ‘complaints’ about Safe Schools were so out of touch they could’ve landed themselves in legal hot water. However these were not the only people who were concerned about aspects of the program. Feminists were also making criticisms of the program – outside of parliamentary privilege – that were reasoned, measured, and worthy of consideration. If a chief social scientist role were to exist, one would hope they would take these feminist voices into account too.

Katie also argued that the chief social scientist would’ve been able to speak with authority on the Safe Schools issue – thereby allowing us to truncate the “extravagant” public debate that we had. But was this debate really “extravagant”? Katie seems to be saying that a chief social scientist would’ve been able to evaluate the evidence on the public’s behalf, and testify as to the programs legitimacy prior to much of the debate even occurring. But my experience of the debate was one where new information came to light that could not have been known at the start. Surely at least some of this information would be relevant in how a chief social scientist evaluated and made an overall assessment of Safe Schools.

For instance, would it matter to a chief social scientist that some of the survey research used to justify the program appears to suffer from clear sampling biases that over-represent the proportion of LGBT youth? Would it matter to a chief social scientist that parts of the program appear to draw dubious parallels between a person’s sexual orientation, and a racialised objectification of Asian women? Would it matter to a chief social scientist that Tim Wilson, himself a gay man, raised concerns about the age appropriateness of some Safe Schools material in early 2015?

A chief social scientist would welcome the public debate and any new information that comes to light in the process. They would be someone who was neither committed to preserving the program as sacred (as the political & cultural left was), nor abolishing it entirely (as the conservative right was). In other words, a chief social scientist would have the unenviable task of having to take scientifically informed positions on inherently politicised issues. They would have to be a part of the political debate, but at the same time remain above it.

In my view, the only way this role could be accomplished successfully is if they are appointed from a research community that is intellectually and politically diverse. Otherwise leaders, policymakers, and the general public will simply view them as another voice representing an interest group with its own political agenda, and the authority of the chief social scientist will be undermined.

Given this, we should ask: just how intellectually & politically diverse are academic researchers in the social sciences? Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who studies the foundations of political difference, is concerned about the lack of political & intellectual diversity in the academy. He shows that academics in the social sciences have a strong left leaning bias, and that sociology is one of, if not the most, left leaning at a left / right ratio of 20 to 1.

Haidt argues that this level of homogeneity stifles free inquiry, as certain topics & conclusions become marginalised when they don’t align with political consensus of those researching them. The critical feminist & centrist voices in the Safe Schools debate are a case in point. This is not to say that there are always two equally legitimate sides to every debate, or that we should approach any given issue with a view to creating an artificial balance of perspectives. But sociologists are the first recognise that diversity is important to getting a multiplicity of views on important topics, in order to generate the best policies and outcomes for society.

TASA’s own Gary Wickham appeared to echo this call for more political diversity in the social sciences, when he remarked at the 2014 TASA Conference that we should make more room for centre right sociology.

The chief social scientist role for Australia is one that I would very much like to see created. But we also need to ensure that the position is not easily compromised by outsider perceptions of political bias, since that is the very reason for having the role in the first place.