Merging stats and policy

Statisticians are from Mars, and politicians are from Venus. This is a problem because statisticians feed politicians the data their policies rely on.

To bridge this gap the University of the Witwatersrand has designed a new, multi-disciplinary master’s course, the MA in demography and population studies.

‘Statisticians have technical skills, and the policymakers have social science and historical skills. There is a need for a level between these two,” Ran Greenstein of Wits’s sociology department explains

To achieve this, the new MA programme combines statistics and sociology courses. Students also select an additional elective from a range of options, including courses in HIV/Aids run by the public health department. The programme includes a macroeconomics course for students with no previous economics training.

‘We hope to attract a range of students from different backgrounds,” says Sangilla Madhavan, the programme coordinator. ‘The course aims to prepare students for working with population statistics, in any field. Marketing people, people working in government agencies and anyone who works with understanding South Africans will benefit.

‘The range of courses we’ve chosen is designed to make sure the students leave with practical, useful skills. The students learn applied statistics to make sure that they are able to use and work with raw research data. But they also learn what statistics really mean,” says Madhavan.

‘We don’t want the students just to be able to apply clever statistics tools. We want them to use the information they have to understand South Africa on a qualitative level.”

Greenstein highlights the importance of the multi-disciplinary nature of the course. This is key, he says, because the students are equipped with scientific and social science skills. This makes it possible for graduates to form a layer between professional statisticians and the policymakers who use their information.

Graduates, says Greenstein, will be able to translate complex data into social science terms.

As the data from census 2001 becomes available skills like these will be in demand. The information gathered by the census describes South Africa; the challenge for the government is to use the information.

For example, the census tells us that one in eight households in South Africa have no access to toilets. This is an interesting finding, but the government needs to be able to assess the problem at a deeper level. It needs to know which South Africans are affected, where they live, and why they have no basic sanitation. — Witsnews

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