Dr. Meng Le Zhang

Meng Le tells us why his research influences all aspects of life and why he wishes he was better at Chinese.

Big data is watching you poster on pole

Describe your job in three words
Research and write.

How long have you worked for The University of Sheffield?
Since October 2016 now, so almost three years.

What do you enjoy about the work you do?
I enjoy the ability to keep up with the latest developments in research and methods as part of my normal job. It allows me to keep my skills and knowledge up to date.

What research are you working on now?
I am working on the Understanding Inequalities project to measure inequalities in Scotland and the effect that it can have on people’s lives.

What would you like to be the ultimate outcome of your research?
I would like any of the research to have an impact on the design and evaluation of policy and interventions, even if they are interventions that exist only in theory. I like any research that can tell you what would happen if you do something; it allows us to plan and change the future.

What legislation would you change to improve how science in your field is done?
This is going to be controversial, but I think that data protection policy is overly restrictive. Currently, there is a lot of potential to use linked administrative data to do social science research, but I feel that we have generally played it safe regarding the degree and extent to which the linkage has occurred due to how cautious public bodies are.

Is there controversy in this area? Other schools of thought?
Definitely with GDPR and reactions to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, public opinion is probably much more in favour of privacy.

Do you have another area of research that you’re currently not working on that you would like to?
I would like to work more on research questions to do with education. I have an idea about using archive data to work out what the effects of grammar schools on education but no real time to pursue it.

What kind of response have you gotten to your research/findings?
Where I get a response, it has mostly been positive. I haven’t produced any piece of work that has shown a controversial result (yet).

Why is your research important? What are the possible real-world applications?
Hopefully we will be able to show the effect (or lack of) of inequality and interventions on people. We don’t live in a world of endless resources so whenever you can measure the effect of something you can start evaluating actions, alternatives and priorities. Otherwise we’d be making decisions based purely on speculation and other considerations.

Why is your area of scientific discovery important (or relevant) for the ordinary citizen of this country?
One of the major goals of science is to understand things with the hopeful end goal of being able to control what happens in the future. As I mentioned before, we have limited resources to meet almost endless goals regarding the economy; healthcare; education; defence; and so forth. We can’t expect to meet any of these goals without scientific knowledge.

What is your favourite thing about what you do?
Experiments are uncommon in my field for various reasons. So I spend a lot of time seeking the existence of natural experiment or interesting things that have happened in the world that I can exploit to answer a research question. This is quite fun as it basically feels like playing detective.

If you could learn to do anything, what would it be?
Honestly, I wish I knew Chinese a lot better. I have a two-year-old now and I don’t think she’ll pick up much Chinese from me.

Text that says Why Numbers Matter

Why Numbers Matter

SMI's series on why it's important to get numbers right.

Flagship institutes

The University’s four flagship institutes bring together our key strengths to tackle global issues, turning interdisciplinary and translational research into real-world solutions.