Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Putting data analysis at the heart of decision-making

ESRC supports initiatives that ensure data can help to deliver effective public services, including collection of new data and helping researchers and other decision makers to access the wealth of data that already exists.

Partners involved:
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

The scope and what we're doing

Data underpins many aspects of our society, ranging from our individual online purchases through to population-level information about income, employment and wellbeing. ESRC funds projects that collect accurate and high-quality data to help us understand people and society. We also fund initiatives to analyse and draw conclusions from assembled datasets, generating the insight needed to inform the public, businesses, charities, public sector organisations and government policies.

We also help researchers access existing datasets, harnessing the vast amount of information already collected by public sector organisations, companies and charities in the UK and globally.

Our initiatives harness the potential that lies within data to help deliver effective public services. Our work supports the collection of new data, which is managed and stored safely and securely so that academics and other researchers can access the information ethically.

Below are a few examples of our work.

Building firm foundations to collect and analyse data

Digitalisation has touched almost every facet of our lives during the past 30 years, bringing with it social, cultural, economic, political and psychological effects. The investments funded by ESRC aim to make sense of how digitalisation is changing our everyday lives. They also look at the benefits that such rich data can bring to our society, from transforming public services to supporting public spending decisions.

Since 2016, ESRC has invested more than £200 million in the UK’s social science data infrastructure, including data collections, longitudinal studies and the facilities and services needed to give researchers ethical and secure access to datasets.

Just as data is always evolving, so too is our data infrastructure strategy, which keeps pace with the latest developments, both in technology and in research.

Making existing data work harder for the public

Businesses, charities and public sector organisations in the UK have already built up a vast wealth of data that can be analysed by academics to provide analysis and insight that will bring benefits to the public.

Our work to help unlock the potential of this data includes funding Administrative Data Research UK, which has a mission to transform the way researchers access the UK’s wealth of public sector data.

ADR UK is creating a sustainable resource that will provide valuable insights into how our society and economy function by:

  • joining up the abundance of administrative data already being created by government and public bodies across the UK
  • facilitating safe and secure access to this data for approved researchers.

Examining existing public data is also at the heart of the Secondary Data Analysis Initiative, which supports researchers to make use of social and economic data already held by ESRC’s data services and our partner agencies.

Training researchers to harness data

Having access to rich and accurate data is the essential first step in developing effective public policy, yet we also need academics who are equipped with the skills to analyse and interpret that data. ESRC funds training for the UK’s research community. Our National Centre for Research Methods is at the forefront of making sure academics have the appropriate techniques and understanding to harness the rich vein of data available in the UK.

Accessing data resources

We fund a number of resources that ensure that data can be accessed and reused more broadly. Our UK Data Service houses the largest collection of economic, social and population data in the UK and has been helping researchers to access and assess information for more than 50 years. ESRC’s flagship data collections such as Understanding Society, the Centre for Longitudinal Studies’ cohorts, the European Social Survey and the British, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Election Studies are all available from the UK Data Service.

Our Consumer Data Research Centre is the UK’s leading source of consumer data for researchers while the Urban Big Data Centre promotes the use of big data to improve social, economic and environmental wellbeing in cities and provides a service for researchers to access data.

CLOSER brings together world-leading longitudinal studies to maximise their use, value and impact. The CLOSER Discovery resource enables researchers to search and browse questionnaires and data from the UK’s leading longitudinal studies to find out what data are available in unprecedented detail.

The three UK Census Longitudinal Studies Support Units provide support for researchers to access and use the longitudinal studies of Census participants in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

We are also directly funding the Office for National Statistics with a dedicated portion of the total investment in ADR UK to expand and improve its established Secure Research Service (SRS) – the organisation’s facility for providing secure access to de-identified public sector data for research – and to significantly increase the range of administrative data available.

Similar investments are being made to support secure access to administrative data in the devolved administrations as part of the ADR UK partnership. The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) allows researchers safe access to project-specific de-identified data in a secure environment to carry out secondary data analysis. In Wales, the Secure Anonymised Information Linkage (SAIL) Databank is setting the standard internationally when it comes to secure storage of anonymised linked data. In Scotland a wide range of de-identified administrative datasets held in the National Safe Haven (NSH) are made available for research through the electronic Data Research and Innovation Service (eDRIS), while Research Data Scotland (RDS) is a new development offering safe, secure and cost-effective access to data for research.

ADR UK is also transforming the way researchers can securely access the UK’s wealth of public sector data for research via ESRC’s investment into the SafePod Network, a major innovation that provides a network of standardised safe settings across the UK to improve secure access to data for research that benefits the public.

Why we're doing it

Unlocking the potential of new and existing datasets allows politicians and government officials to develop and implement policies that touch every aspect of our lives. Strengthening the evidence base for policy sits at the heart of ESRC’s work with data.

From studying the spread of diseases in populations to inform health policy through to examining the links between poor housing and crime, our data sets allow researchers to bring new insights on the information that policymakers need to make decisions and allocate public funds so that they can change lives.

Using accurate data to give confidence to governmental decisions both at local and national level, will help to make sure that services meet the public’s needs and are more effective as a result.

Opportunities, support and resources available

Find out if you are eligible to apply for a Secondary Data Analysis Initiative grant.

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Our data collections impact people’s lives. Find out more through our impact case studies:

Who to contact

Last updated: 27 February 2024

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