Longitudinal studies must make the case for change in order to seize opportunities of the future

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Scientific opportunities abound for the world’s longitudinal population studies – if they can make a powerful case for change to funders, government data holders, and their participants.

That was the overriding message of a report published today by CLOSER on the future of longitudinal population studies. The report, titled Preparing for the future II: international approaches to challenges facing longitudinal population studies, documents the discussions at a one-day conference hosted by CLOSER in January 2020. Representatives from over 40 longitudinal population studies from around the world came together to unearth best practice, and identify ways to tackle shared challenges.

Delegates noted that new technology, data linkage, and advancements in data infrastructure were offered a bright future for longitudinal population studies. But realising these opportunities to enhance data and increase their use requires investment, political buy-in and crucially, acceptance from participants.

Specific issues raised included:

  • New technology could allow for ground-breaking forms of data collection, but thus far has had varied acceptability among participants. More information is needed on what works well, including with specific demographics, to realise the opportunities these new methods can offer.
  • Sources for new data linkages to enhance longitudinal data seem infinite, but red tape and debates over consent remain strong barriers. There is an urgent need to develop a shared narrative on the benefits of data linkage, in order to convince data holders, participants and the public of the importance of carrying out this work.
  • Investment in infrastructure alongside research is critical – financial and staff resources for data harmonisation and discoverability will help to maximise the use of longitudinal data, supporting in particular cross-study comparisons, reproducibility, and the overall scientific quality of research.
  • Upskilling both study teams and data users to take advantage of new scientific opportunities will ensure the long-term investment required for longitudinal resources has strong returns.

Delegates also stressed the importance of a clear scientific rationale for change – and not just innovating for innovation’s sake. Priority needs to be given to new forms of data collection, harmonisation projects, linkages, and participant engagement methods that offer the greatest scientific value.

Members of the global longitudinal community recognised the value in working together to build a strong, evidence-based case for change across a range of scientific and operational areas. But they also called for a good mechanism or forum for collaboration to make this possible.

Prof Rebecca Hardy, CLOSER Director, said: “Cultural and country differences shape the nature of longitudinal studies around the world, making each one unique. But many of the scientific opportunities and operational challenges we face are common to all. It’s evident no one study can overcome these alone.

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