Understanding ourselves better as a nation

Collage image of things representing society

Studies that track our lives over decades can help us to live better and meet the challenges of the 21st century.

I recently went to an exhibition to celebrate the new polar ship for Great Britain, the RRS Sir David Attenborough. It’s a brilliant example of science infrastructure, bringing benefits to the broader scientific community at a scale that vastly exceeds what would be possible for any single team to achieve.

Other disciplines have infrastructure that is equally vital but less visible than the RRS Sir David Attenborough. Social science infrastructure is typically based around data, often in the form of complex datasets about individuals or groups.

Sometimes the data is generated by surveys. In other cases it is a by-product of our interactions with public services (administrative data, subject of a blog by my colleague Dr Emma Gordon or with the digital world (digital footprint data).

Providing key insights into a changing UK

These datasets help us know ourselves better as a nation. They provide key insights into how the UK is changing, the circumstances faced by different groups, and how individual characteristics and experiences combine and influence our lives.

They also provide critical intelligence for policymakers, unpicking the issues around major policy challenges and highlighting ways to resolve them.

I’d like to bring the power of data infrastructure to life by telling you about the longitudinal study, an enduring and powerful example common across the social and medical sciences.

Seven Up! on steroids

You may have come across the wonderful Seven Up! TV series which, every seven years, revisits a small number of children born in 1957. Its appeal comes from getting to know a person and seeing how he or she and their circumstances change over a prolonged period of time.

This is what longitudinal studies do, but at a far grander scale – like Seven Up! on steroids.

Each study is unique, but they are typically in contact with participants over years, often decades, collecting information about a wide range of topics.

Increasingly, researchers are now able to link survey data like this to other information about participants, including administrative and digital footprint data, providing even richer information about people’s lives with minimal burden to participants.

Impacting public policy: from smoking to COVID-19

So what do we know as a result of longitudinal studies?

We take for granted that smoking is bad for our health, including the health of an unborn child. This link between maternal smoking and low birth weight was first revealed by the National Child Development Survey, which follows a cohort of people born in 1958.

Data from a range of cohort studies has been used to investigate the relationship between a mother’s employment and child development, helping to challenge the presumption that children are negatively affected by mothers going out to work. The results underpinned the Labour government’s Welfare to Work policy in the 1990s.

More generally, longitudinal data has been essential in helping understand both what matters during the early years of a child’s life (including how different factors, from genetics to material advantage, affect healthy development) and how, in turn, these early years influence how people’s lives turn out many decades later. The studies are important to the Shaping Us campaign of the Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood, which was recently established by the Princess of Wales.

Most recently, longitudinal studies were vital during COVID-19, allowing the rapid understanding of how the pandemic was affecting different groups. For example, data from Understanding Society (which follows a random sample of households across the UK) showed how mental health deteriorated over the pandemic’s course, finding particularly marked declines among women, young people and those with preschool children.

The value of longitudinal studies to policy makers and practitioners is illustrated by them being central to the research of many recent winners of the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) annual Impact Prize. Professor Heather Joshi’s 2022 Impact Prize reflected work that led to improved pension rights for women.

Studies are a global feature

The powerful insights that come from longitudinal studies explain their use across the world. There are many examples in every inhabited continent, from the Dunedin Study  in New Zealand to the Great Smoky Mountains Study in the United States.

The UK is genuinely world leading, with UK Research and Innovation funding underpinning this reputation. Examples include ESRC’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies, which houses four of the UK’s cohort studies (following participants born in 1958, 1970, 1989 to 1990 and 2000 to 2001), and Understanding Society, the largest longitudinal study of its kind, which began tracking 40,000 households and 100,000 individuals across the UK in 2010.

Examples supported by the Medical Research Council (MRC) include the first national cohort study, the 1946 National Survey of Health and Development, as well as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children and UK Biobank.

Developing a new generation of studies

The versatility of longitudinal studies helps explain both the longevity and growing popularity of this critical data infrastructure. Data from Understanding Society, for example, was accessed by more than 4,000 users in 2021 (Understanding Society Annual Report 2021), a figure that has increased every year, as has the number of new users and those from different disciplines.

Although the power of longitudinal studies lies in their accumulation of information over the longer term, the pandemic also showed off their agility.

Many studies quickly switched to online contact with participants and collected a breadth of new data. This innovation is continuing, with MRC and ESRC working together to develop the next generation of longitudinal studies using a range of new approaches and techniques.

ESRC’s focus is on a new UK Early Years Cohort Study that will track children born in the 2020s, allowing us to understand the circumstances and experiences of this new generation, and enhancing the UK’s ability to generate world-leading research about social and physical development. Pilot work on the study is underway.

MRC is leading on a new Adolescent Health Survey that will transform our understanding of the transition from childhood to adulthood. And, encapsulating the message of this blog, ESRC and MRC are collaborating on Population Research UK, whose ambition is to further increase the insights, innovations and research efficiency of the wealth of social and biomedical longitudinal studies I’ve described.

Top image:  Credit: UK Research and Innovation

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