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Are you more than just a number? Improving population studies from science to policy

Dr John Matthewson (Photo: Vanessa Schouten)

Population research shapes everything from public health interventions to national conservation priorities and your insurance premiums. Dr John Matthewson from Massey University will develop a new framework to help ensure research into populations is rigorous and ethical.

Published 8 November 2018

From medical trials to ecology and psychology, scientific research is frequently about populations. Population statistics are also used extensively in the public and private sphere, often to justify important decisions regarding individuals. Such data may be used to assess your risk of heart disease, your resilience following traumatic events, or the probability you will commit a crime. In the era of big data, population-level research will increasingly drive crucial decision-making. However, what counts as a “population” and how such information should be used is not neutral or well defined.

Dr John Matthewson from Massey University’s School of Humanities has received a Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant to develop a framework that identifies key properties of populations across the natural and social sciences. He will combine philosophical analysis with case studies to examine the theoretical, practical, and ethical dimensions of defining a population. Dr Matthewson is uniquely placed to tackle this significant interdisciplinary issue, having trained and worked as both a medical doctor and a philosopher.

Population research can benefit society, but misuse or misunderstanding of such data can harm groups and individuals. This project will outline how and when population-based evidence can be fairly and accurately applied in scientific and policy analysis and inform real-world decisions. The resulting framework will contribute to more rigorous scientific methodologies for population research.