Longitudinal studies: a priority for long term investment

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We are at a turning point in the UK’s long history as a leader in research across the lifecourse. What happens next will define the future of cohort and longitudinal studies for decades to come.

For many years other countries have looked on in envy at the UK’s birth cohort and longitudinal studies. Internationally renowned, these important investments have provided key insights into UK society, allowing researchers and policymakers to explore patterns of change and the dynamics of individual behaviour, the link between earlier life circumstances and later outcomes, how different areas of our lives are linked, and how those relationships change over time.

With the advent of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and a number of portfolio reviews by major funders in progress, fundamental questions are now being discussed throughout the research and policy communities about what the future holds for the UK’s longitudinal studies, and how best to maximise their use, usability and usefulness.

The 2014 Medical Research Council (MRC) Strategic Review identified the need to maximise the value of longitudinal studies as a key strategic priority. Emphasis was placed on how these major research assets are in a prime position to take advantage of data linkage to enhance our understanding of protective and risk factors underpinning health, wellbeing and disease. More recently, Wellcome’s Longitudinal Population Studies Strategy highlights the value of these resources as the only way of understanding how biological, social and environmental factors interact over time in a population to produce health outcomes. With a focus on coordinating their investments under one strategy, Wellcome aims to fund studies that contribute to improving human health and encourage the integration of longitudinal survey and routine administrative data.

Elsewhere in this landscape, the ESRC Longitudinal Studies Review is currently exploring the current and future scientific and policy-relevant need for longitudinal research resources. The initial consultation findings reveal the value and impact of these studies – they are viewed as a national asset, uniquely placed to help understand complex change, and a long-term investment which must be preserved for the benefit of future generations. Responses on the future priority areas for longitudinal research include the long-term effects of childhood and adult experience, health and wellbeing, equality and inequality, and an ageing population. Enhancement through data linkage is frequently mentioned, with both policymakers and researchers keen to utilise publically funded datasets to understand and answer fundamental questions.

Calls for a new birth cohort to explore the experiences of the generations born since the turn of the century seem to resonate with decision makers. However the future of any new cohort is unclear and a number of other challenges need to be addressed to maximise the use and value of existing studies. For example, there are valid concerns about the continued need for people with the right skills and expertise to lead, manage and analyse longitudinal research and how the UK is falling behind in training researchers and non-academic audiences in using these rich resources. Meanwhile the undeniable potential offered by linking survey data to administrative records held by government is, all too often, frustrated in practice by difficulties in accessing the relevant data.

The ESRC has reviewed its longitudinal studies before, which led to the development of CLOSER (the UK longitudinal studies consortium). A unique partnership that brings together MRC and ESRC funded biomedical and social longitudinal studies, CLOSER is seeking to address some of the fundamental challenges for longitudinal research such as harmonisation across studies, data linkage, new forms of data collection, and training. Cross-study and cross-cohort analysis present new opportunities to maximise existing resources – CLOSER enables researchers to look across generations to improve our understanding about the impact of change and has helped to inform government policy on issues such as childhood obesity. CLOSER’s flagship product, ‘Discovery’, is a new search engine that enables researchers and policymakers to search and browse questionnaires and data from eight leading UK longitudinal studies and CLOSER’s Learning Hub (which will be launched later this year) will support users of longitudinal research from elementary level to advanced.

The opportunity for longitudinal research to inform policy has never been clearer – the recent efforts to identify the main research questions facing government departments demonstrates the need for longitudinal research across a wide range of domains. These Areas of Research Interest (a response to Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the UK Research Councils) explicitly recognise the value of longitudinal evidence in investigating the contextual factors and understanding the causes and impacts of behaviour.

In this era of dramatic political, technological, societal and economic change only longitudinal data can provide insights about the dynamics of individual behaviour and the influence of earlier events and circumstances on later outcomes. Continued investment in the UK’s longitudinal studies will be crucial to the future success of the UK’s science and research base. They should be a priority for long-term investment and part of any new capital spending roadmap to support fundamental research. The moment to ensure that these longitudinal studies continue to be the “jewel in the crown of UK science” is now.

Rob Davies is Public Affairs Manager for CLOSER, the UK longitudinal studies consortium funded by the ESRC and Medical Research Council (MRC). CLOSER brings together eight biomedical and social longitudinal studies, with participants born as early as the 1930s to the present day.

You can follow Rob on Twitter @r0bdavies.