£138m investment in social science data infrastructure

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) invests a further £100 million in Understanding Society and £37.5 million in the UK Data Service.

Long term investment to support the collection of social science data, and access to it, is vital to support effective research, and policy design and implementation.

Minister of State at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, George Freeman, said:

Understanding how the UK lives and changes over time is key to ensuring services like healthcare, transport and education best serve the public and that hardworking taxpayers’ money is spent wisely.

By investing £138m towards continued gathering of key household data, we are enabling decision-making that benefits us all while laying the groundwork for new discoveries that enhance our lives.

Informing research that improves lives

ESRC Executive Chair, Stian Westlake, said:

ESRC invests in world-class social science data infrastructure on behalf of the UK. The substantial, long-term investment we are making today will provide researchers and policymakers with high-quality data to inform research that improves people’s lives across the country.

Understanding Society is one of the largest long-term panel studies of households in the world. It provides researchers and policymakers with a deep and broad understanding of the causes and consequences of social, economic and cultural changes in people’s lives in the UK.

The UK Data Service is an international leader in the technical development of digital standards, data curation, research data management, data-skills training and impact. It is a vital part of the UK’s research infrastructure, and support users from 146 countries.

Understanding Society

ESRC has funded Understanding Society since it began in 1991.

By following the same households over a long period of time, Understanding Society gives a long-term perspective on the causes and consequences of social, economic and cultural change.

Interviewing everyone in a household allows the study to capture how different generations experience life.

The data it generates makes it possible for researchers to investigate how life is changing and for policymakers, and others, to use those insights to improve life in the UK.

Understanding Society is led by social science experts at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex.

Enabling the continued collection

This funding boost for Understanding Society will:

  • enable the continued collection of data on the existing 25,000 UK household for a further 10 years
  • launch additional ethnic minority and Celtic population subgroups to expand the number of relevant participants from these groups
  • collect additional biological data from existing participants to allow investigation of health changes over time

Director of Understanding Society, Professor Michaela Benzeval, said:

Producing high quality data is at the core of our Study. With a longitudinal survey, like Understanding Society, the value of the Study becomes greater the longer it goes on. We’re delighted that UKRI and the ESRC are continuing to invest in Understanding Society – their long-term support helps us build knowledge and provide vital evidence on life in the UK.

The UK Data Service

The UK Data Service is a national research infrastructure that provides trusted access and training to use the UK’s largest collection of economic, population and social research data for teaching, learning and public benefit.

This funding boost for the UK Data Service will:

  • ensure continued access to more than 7,000 high quality economic, social research and population datasets
  • secure the longevity and sustainability of many of the UK’s most critical national data resources, including the Census, Understanding Society and the Labour Force Survey
  • support the existing partners who collaborate and provide the world-class expertise that is at the heart of the UK Data Service

Working in a rapidly evolving data landscape

Professor Debora Price, Senior Leadership Group, the UK Data Service said:

There is barely a quantitative social scientist in the UK who has not used the Data Service for research or training. This award is fantastic news, ensuring that our highly skilled team can continue our work for years to come in an ever-changing and rapidly evolving data landscape.

The importance of social science data infrastructure

ESRC-supported infrastructure has underpinned key research breakthroughs such as:

  • identifying the health impacts of smoking during pregnancy
  • detecting the early warning signs of adolescent self-harm
  • revealing the scarring effects of long-term unemployment
  • working out how to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty

Without such infrastructures, critical research like this would not be possible or would take longer and cost more owing to the need to collect new data.

Understanding Society and the UK Data Service are integral parts of ESRC’s data infrastructure strategy.

Together with other investments, they contribute to achieving UK Research and Innovation’s five-year transforming tomorrow together strategy and ESRC’s strategic delivery plan.

Understanding life across the UK

Entire households contribute to Understanding Society and participants from all four countries of the UK are included. This provides insights into a wide variety of aspects of people’s lives, including:

  • biomarkers, genetics and epigenetics
  • COVID-19
  • education
  • employment
  • ethnicity and immigration
  • family and households
  • health and wellbeing
  • money and finances
  • politics and social attitudes
  • transport and environment
  • young people’s lives

Evidence-led policy impact case study

UK Data Service and Understanding Society collaborate closely. During the pandemic, the UK Data Service curated critical data from the study within two months of the UK lockdown, enabling rapid research and evidence-led policy development at a national level.

Data from Understanding Society was then used by HM Treasury, Public Health England, SAGE and other non-governmental organisations and charities to:

  • analyse the economic impact of COVID-19 on household incomes
  • advise the government on improving vaccine take-up in ethnic minority groups
  • assess the impact of school closures on children
  • investigate how furlough protected household incomes

Throughout the pandemic, over 130,000 datasets were downloaded through the UK Data Service by researchers in the UK alone, while there was an 80% increase in self-deposited research. And the UK Data Service online training, guidance and events upskilled over 12,000 data users to extract knowledge and insights from collections of complex digital data.

Top image:  Credit: Duncan Cuthbertson, iStock via Getty Images

This is the website for UKRI: our seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. Let us know if you have feedback or would like to help improve our online products and services.