A comprehensive, independent review has recommended that the ESRC should continue to fund its world-leading social science longitudinal studies.

The Longitudinal Studies Review 2017 (PDF, 6.7Mb), published today, concluded that the ESRC’s longitudinal studies provide us with unrivalled information and insights into the lives of the UK population, with data that stretch over 60 years. These studies follow individuals over short and long periods of time and collect data on many aspects of their lives, including their beliefs, emotions, attitudes, motivations, economic circumstances and behaviours.

The review concluded that whilst the UK’s longitudinal studies are internationally excellent, more investment is needed to secure the UK’s position as a global leader in the provision of social science data. The review also highlighted the need to demonstrate to the public and to policy-makers the significant academic and societal impact of these data sets.

The ESRC's longitudinal studies provide us with an understanding of how different aspects of people’s lives, from their physical environment to their education, impact on a range of health, social, economic and other outcomes. These data are vital to understand the many facets of individuals' lives and are particularly powerful when used in conjunction with administrative data records – the review highlighted. For example, these longitudinal studies when linked to health records can help us understand how a child's early environment can influence their adult health outcomes.

Professor Jennifer Rubin, Executive Chair at the ESRC, said: "We are delighted to see that the Longitudinal Studies Review 2017 has recommended that we continue funding this vital area, which stretches to more than £20 million annually.

"The data from longitudinal studies make an important contribution to social science, providing the basis for unparalleled high quality, interdisciplinary research.

"Studies of this kind are extremely valuable, especially in demonstrating the complexities of the interaction between inheritance and our wider environment, and how this affects us over our lifetimes." 

Professor Rubin added: "Social science longitudinal studies help us understand how we live our lives, and how our choices and behaviour, the wider environment and policies affect us. For example, the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS) revealed the link between smoking during pregnancy and poor infant health, greatly enhancing our understanding of this phenomenon and informing significant policy change. However, this Review has also shown that more must be done to demonstrate their incredible impact. The ESRC is committed to helping our data and research community to do this."

The report was carried out by an independent international panel of experts, chaired by Professor Pamela Davis-Kean, University of Michigan.

It examined:

  • the future scientific and policy need for longitudinal studies, including the use of such data by non-social scientists and their potential for researchers who have not traditionally been core users of longitudinal datasets
  • the scientific and real world impact of longitudinal studies and where we expect to see impact in the future
  • the changing context of large survey data collection, including public attitudes to participation in these studies, the opportunities presented by new technologies and methods of data collection, and the potential for data linkage with administrative, health and commercial datasets
  • the shape of our current portfolio, including its UK and international context, and its fit with the broader UK and international data infrastructure.

Professor Davis-Kean said: "It was clear to the international review committee that the ESRC funded longitudinal studies set the standard for collecting data on how communities and populations change across the decades. Continuing and enhancing this portfolio of longitudinal studies will position the UK in a unique leadership position in understanding the population dynamics of the UK in an ever changing and complex world."

Professor Anna Vignoles, Director of Research at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge and the Review’s Steering Group Chair, said: "The Review has confirmed the international excellence of the UK's current longitudinal data investments. It also highlights the very real opportunity for the UK to maintain its world leading position in longitudinal data with more innovative approaches to future data collection."