Skip to content

Does the UK have the right skills to thrive in the big data era? New evidence and policy actions

There is no doubt that we are living in the midst of a data explosion. There is also increasing acknowledgement that if the UK is going to benefit from it, we need to build the right skills. There is a growing body of research, including reports by The Tech Partnership and Nesta, about the nature of those skills, and the barriers to acquiring them.

Today sees another important contribution to the evidence base in this area: Count Us In, a report by the British Academy calling for a concerted effort to transform the UK’s quantitative skills base (which it defines as ‘the ability to reason using numbers’). We attended the launch of the report at the House of Lords today.

The messages of Count Us In

In previous research we have shown that businesses view statistics skills, together with computer programming, industry nous and soft skills, as the core skillset of the data scientist.  But as the British Academy’s report argues, there are serious bottlenecks in the supply of quantitative skills like statistics in the UK:

  • Young people in England and Wales (and to a lesser extent, Scotland) are less likely to study maths after 16 than those in other countries
  • The teaching of quantitative skills is rarely embedded in other subjects. This creates a divide between people who have studied mathematics and other overtly ‘quantitative’ subjects and those that have not, which cuts across society.
  • There are important quantitative skills gaps in the existing workforce

This is not just a problem for the workplace, however.  UK consumers need quantitative skills for shopping and to manage their personal finances, and to understand public debates where statistics play an important part. As Lord O’Donnell pointed out when introducing the report today, the behavioural sciences suggest that people can be surprisingly bad at making decisions in complex situations like changing an energy provider, or saving for their retirement. Better quantitative skills can help address this.

Count Us In identifies what the issues are, and calls on governments across the UK to set out a long-term strategy to transform the quantitative skills of the population.

Very importantly, this isn’t just about reforming the teaching of mathematics at schools and universities but, as David Pollard (Federation of Small Business) said at the event, also about making sure that quantitative skills are taught in a way that relates to the real world, and excites and engages young people.

Culture matters too: as a member of the audience noted, it is still socially acceptable for people to say that 'they don’t do numbers', creating the wrong impression about the importance and need for quantitative skills. Sir Ian Diamond, who introduced the report today, believes that things are changing as a consequence of the data revolution, but more to be done to create a society which is 'as comfortable with numbers as it is with words'.

Coming up: Skills of the Datavores, and policy recommendations to boost data analytics skills in the UK

On July 13, Nesta and Universities UK are launching two new reports providing further evidence on data skills in the UK.

Our report, Skills of the Datavores, uses a firm survey to quantify the value of data for UK businesses, the analytical skills needed to create that value, and the skills shortages afflicting data-driven businesses in the UK. Universities UK’s report focuses on the teaching of data analytics in UK undergraduate courses.

This research should be seen as complementing the case set out in Count Us In by considering the wider set of skills (including, but not confined to, quantitative skills) that analysts need in order to thrive in the data economy, with a strong emphasis on the view of employers.

Also on July 13, we will publish a briefing jointly developed with Universities UK setting out a major programme of policy recommendations for removing the blockages in the talent pipeline for data analytics in the UK.

A panel of speakers including representatives from education (Professors Sofia Olhede and Patrick Wolfe, UCL), industry (Damian Kimmelman from DueDil and Jenny Warrilow from Boots) and policy (Andrea Young, DCMS) will discuss the findings.

If you are interested in attending the event, there are still a few places left. Register here.

Author

Hasan Bakhshi

Hasan Bakhshi

Hasan Bakhshi

Executive Director, Creative Economy and Data Analytics

Hasan leads Nesta's creative and digital economy policy and research.

View profile
Juan Mateos-Garcia

Juan Mateos-Garcia

Juan Mateos-Garcia

Director of Innovation Mapping

Juan leads a team of data scientists, developers, visualisers and innovation experts who use new datasets, analytics methods and visualisation tools to inform innovation policy.

View profile