Thursday, 3 March 2016


A glance through the websites of the Economc and Social Research Council and the grant-making
foundations will show a number of projects which would not cause irretrievable loss,
intellectual or material, if they were cancelled. At the same time, there are obvious and
important issues which social scientists have not tackled.  Here are some widely-discussed
issues which it would be feasible for social scientists to make a decisive contribution, but
they have not done so.  In terms of method, one major category is where a number of causal
factors are operative in an important social problem, and where the need is to quantify,
at least roughly, their importance. Quite often it would probably be found that some of the
alleged causes are insignificant and others of decisive importance; the task is to devise
tests and investigations to determine which.
1.  The decline of the high street.- one of the many issues on which the government has
appouinted a "Czar", who has not apparently made any progress in reversing the decline
or disentangling the causal factors.  Three are obvious: the growth of online shopping, the proliferation of charity shops, and the growth of out-of-town shops.  The impact of the
first is obviously in the areas where the internet has made most progress. Probably the
most important are travel agents and books, also clothing, food and a variety of others.
Charity shops have impacted on clothing, hiusehold goods, books and furniture.  (I can
cite charity bookshops and furntiture stores where quality is so good and prices so
low that no commercial venture could compete; obviously the enxt step is to analyse
the causes of charity shops  competitive advantages and see how far they are justifiable).
Out-of-town shopping is closely related to car use and parking charges; there is an urgent need for a comperhensive survey of these charges in out-of-town locations and probably a case for imposing
a parking tax, in view of the land-use requirements.
2.  Regional differences in mortality and morbidity rates.
Poverty is the most usually cited.  Diet, smoking acohol and drug use are also (possibly
more) important and their effects are, at least for the first three, easily quantifiable.
I would add another which I beleive might turn out to be top of the list-  weather. Populations
on the west coast of Britain, including the north-west and western Scotland, get more rain
and less sunshine than other parts of the country, consequently lack vitamin D.  A fairly easy
test of this last factor would be to compare populations in the western half of Brtain with
those in the eastern half, allowing as far as possible for income, diet, etc.
3.  Obesity
The significant thing has obviously been the rise since the 1950s.  Whether this is due
to consumption of particular foods, mainly sugar, or to an increase in total calories
consumption could easily be determined from food consumpio statistics. There is also
the decline in manual work, which has affected men more than women, and in household
work which has had the reverse effect.  The rise in car use at the expense of walking
and cycling msut also be taken into account, and a factor which I would guess is very
important is the rise in awerage household temperatures, from ca. 17 C in the 1950s to an
unhealthy 20 or 21 degrees centigrade.  (It is true that deaths rise in cold weather, but I would
guess that this is due to the effect,e specially on the elderly and infiirm, of being out-of-
doors is cold weather,a nd not as fuel campaigners claim to low indoor temperatures)

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