The UK has rich datasets of longitudinal population studies, dating back to the end of the Second World War, that help researchers study how our changing world affects people’s lives long term. As the Economics and Social Research Council (ESRC) undertakes a review of its longitudinal studies portfolio, we look at the background to the review and why the RSS (via its Social Statistics section) will be making its own contribution to help shape the future of this key part of the nation’s social science data infrastructure.
The ESRC’s review is covering future need, methodology, potential for data linkage and how its current longitudinal studies portfolio fits with the UK’s broader data infrastructure.
The ESRC 2017 review – the process
Several stages have already proceeded; an online consultation ran in October 2016, asking about substantive and methodological priorities for longitudinal studies. Responses from outside academia were relatively few, and the scope of the review to include not just studies funded by the ESRC is now clearer. However, an initial textual analysis of the large number of detailed responses received shows that a large number of important issues were raised.
An invitational workshop followed in January 2017, hosted at Nuffield College, Oxford by Andrew Dilnot. Participants were able to meet the international review team and were asked to discuss the main themes of the online consultation in groups. However, there was also encouragement to look at the wider vision and alternatives to the present longitudinal study designs. The essential basis of why do we need these studies, and what would we do differently without them was a challenge put to participants but it is not clear whether new answers have emerged.
An international review group will report at the end of 2017, with their recommendations considered by ESRC council in February 2018.
The ESRC’s longitudinal studies portfolio
At present the ESRC supports specific longitudinal studies such as the large cohorts born in 1946, 1958, 1970, 1991 and 2001, some in a partnership with the Medical Research Council. It also has big investments in administrative data, and linking of administrative data, including into the longitudinal studies themselves. Panel studies such as Understanding Society and the British Election Study also form part of the portfolio, and the Young Lives cohort has also been taken over, having originated in the Department for Education.
The ESRC has reviewed its longitudinal studies before, in 2006, which led to the development of CLOSER (the Cohorts and Longitudinal Studies Enhancement Resource) and Life Study, the 2012 birth cohort study which was unfortunately discontinued in 2016 due to problems recruiting participants. The Medical Research Council (MRC) also more recently reported on its longitudinal portfolio of studies relevant to health, particularly life course epidemiology.
Large longitudinal studies have had problems though, not just in the recent example of the cancellation of the Life Study. According to Helen Pearson’s book ‘The Life Project’ (and a piece she wrote for Nature a while back) a similar cancellation occurred in the 1980s, in the face of government disinvestment in social science. Despite a large investment, following a report by the National Academies, a federal study in the USA was also cancelled.
This review of longitudinal studies is in its early stages, and clearly has many interested parties. The RSS is one of the interested parties, and is looking at holding a meeting in the autumn, to explore methodological issues, and to think about scientific utility. Many of our members will have views on priorities, methods, content and skills which we want to make sure are fully considered by the review team, as well as taking an independent wider perspective.
If you would like to keep up with the RSS involvement in this review, and are interested in attending the meeting later this year, please contact our Social Statistics section.