How CLOSER can help the UK’s longitudinal population studies meet the challenges facing them in the future

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In December last year CLOSER brought together representatives from across the social and biomedical science community to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing the UK’s longitudinal population studies, and how studies and disciplines can come together to address them.

The one day conference, hosted by the Wellcome Trust, included study Principal Investigators, researchers, professional staff, policy makers and funders. In the coming weeks we will publish a full report of the day’s discussions. In the meantime, I reflect on some of the key themes raised, and how CLOSER can help the UK’s longitudinal population studies to meet these challenges and maximise the value of these important research resources.

New technology can be a transformative force for longitudinal science – but it is not without its challenges

One of the cross-cutting themes was the transformative potential that technological innovations can have for longitudinal research. This was particularly evident in relation to data collection, with many opportunities for embedding new and novel measures into longitudinal studies (including sensors, cameras, apps and wearable technology).

Some challenges were identified around evaluating data quality and scientific utility of new measures, as well as understanding any potential biases arising from who takes part. Once the data are collected, there are challenges around data processing and storage, as well as developing the required analytical skills and tools to generate insight from the data.

Within this context, collaboration and sharing experiences, both successes and failures, across studies and disciplines is crucial. New technology is not only affecting how studies approach data collection, it is also a driver of change in other areas of longitudinal research. For example, data documentation software can be used to facilitate more efficient harmonisation, new analytical techniques such as machine learning can be used to increase the research possibilities afforded by longitudinal study data, and the impact of such research could be better monitored through new techniques such as web scraping or text mining. CLOSER has already provided a number of opportunities for knowledge sharing and capacity building in relation to new technologies, and expanding this area of our work is a priority to help studies unlock the scientific potential of these emerging technologies.

The impact and potential impact of the studies is huge – but we can do more to demonstrate their value to policy-makers

Another of the major themes was around demonstrating the value of longitudinal studies, and how studies can improve their ability to generate and evidence wider societal and policy impact, as well as scientific impact. The prospective and multi-disciplinary nature of longitudinal population studies means they are ideally placed to provide insight into a range of different societal and economic challenges and evidence for policy makers and practitioners in these areas.

One of the priorities for CLOSER this year will be to map existing longitudinal evidence and data available to the government’s areas of research interest (ARIs) to showcase the opportunities the studies provide for delivering new policy insight and help inform any future funding calls. Policymakers find it easier to receive syntheses of evidence from across a range of studies and disciplines, which is a professional service that CLOSER provides. We are also building strong relationships with government and third sector organisations to facilitate improved engagement between longitudinal studies and policymakers.

Unlocking the opportunities in longitudinal data to address policy questions by pushing the data to policymakers and providing a ‘rapid response’ service providing quick turnaround of research results would be a beneficial future investment in research resources.

Harmonisation unlocks the potential of cross-study research – but quality will come through shared standards

Facilitating multi-disciplinary cross-study research is a major area of importance for UK science, and a priority for CLOSER. This kind of research can be complex and challenging, particularly as different studies often use different measures.

CLOSER’s harmonisation expertise is helping to facilitate comparative longitudinal research in important areas including obesity and mental health. Discovery, CLOSER’s online searchable meta-data platform, also facilitates this by enabling researchers to identify equivalent measures across studies.

Future challenges in cross-study harmonisation identified included: the need for greater collaboration across disciplines to help facilitate multi-disciplinary research, going beyond retrospective harmonisation to directly validate measures with external sources and calibrate different measures with each other, as well as the challenges of promoting and implementing prospective harmonisation efforts. Ensuring that harmonisation work is carried out robustly to high-quality standards and developing standards for this, as well as for consistent meta-data and documentation, is a priority area for future development of CLOSER’s work.

Linkage is a powerful means of enhancing both study data and administrative records – in getting this message through, we’re stronger if we speak with one voice

Unlocking opportunities for enhancing longitudinal studies through linkage to administrative data, particularly through improving access to administrative data, was another recurring theme, and a major work strand for CLOSER. Although there have been successes in this area, common challenges remain: in relation to collecting and maintaining participant consent, transparency of the linkage process itself and optimising post-linkage data processing and use. The importance of longitudinal studies working collaboratively together to share experiences and to provide a collective voice for change, particularly when communicating with funders, data holders and other bodies such as the Administrative Data Research Partnership and Health Data Research UK, was recognised. There was also a recognition of the need to improve our knowledge about both participant and public understanding of data linkage, and to build a portfolio of exemplars of research with linked data, both of which CLOSER is well placed to facilitate.

Next steps

We will be publishing a full report of the conference discussions in the coming weeks. It will include a set of recommendations for CLOSER, funders and studies themselves. CLOSER will then begin work on our action plan to carry forward those recommendations, and working with funders and studies to do the same.