“It would be a tragedy if any minister in any British government were to say ‘we can afford the physics but not the social sciences’,” Mr Willetts told the launch of a longitudinal studies booklet on Tuesday (11 June 2013).
The booklet, sponsored by SAGE, is the eighth in the Making the Case for the Social Sciences series, which is published by the Academy of Social Sciences and the Campaign for Social Science. Each booklet summarises a different area of important social science research.
Mr Willetts told the launch, at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in London, that the ring-fenced £4.6 billion budget for science included funding for social science carried out at universities and research institutes, and the work of the ESRC and AHRC.
“I sometimes detect a kind of defensiveness and insecurity in some people, particularly in the humanities, but in the social sciences as well. [However] one of the great advantages and strengths we have in Britain is that although we are only a medium-size economy, whenever the external assessors look at our research activity [they find] it’s very broad-based – we have the widest range of different areas of research excellence and one of my aims is absolutely to maintain that. Especially nowadays when connectivity matters and inter-disciplinarity matters, it’s even more important that we keep all the different activities.”
He listed three initiatives relating to longitudinal studies that he was involved with. In the first the government had decided to fund the 2012 Birth Cohort Study, which will continue a series set up to track the growth, development, health, well-being and social circumstances of thousands of UK babies and their families. This began in 1946 and has continued since, except for a break during the Thatcher administration.
“This 2012 study is going to be the one that most ambitious, and links some of the medical and biological and genetic data with social and environmental data,” he said.
There had also been investment in ways of linking its data to previous studies.
He also spoke about a report last December from the Administrative Data Taskforce which tackled clearly some of the practical problems of data collection and called for high standards of confidentiality of data collection. “We are looking on it very favourably,” he said. It would need further expenditure and “negotiations are very lively at the moment” but he hoped to find additional funding.
Mr Willets said he chaired the Social Mobility Transparency Board to improve practical data linking between agencies. “There are difficult in linking schools data FE data, HE data, employment data – we are trying to bring together different departments to tackle problems – some might require changes in legislative framework.”
“Those are three practical examples…where we are trying to back and support the work that you are doing and your commitment to research in longitudinal studies.”
He said that longitudinal studies should answer the question: ‘how much social mobility do you buy for different interventions at different stages of the lifecycle?’ He thought there was too much weight on the assumption that the best time to address a person’s physical or psychological problems was in their early years. “I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case: in fact, sometimes, given that government actions are imperfect, you might say it’s better to address the problem when it presents itself rather than trying to predict 16 years in advance who’s going to have the problem.” He thought the 1958 and 1970 cohort studies were relied on too heavily and that the literature answering his question was sparse.
Polly Toynbee, writer and Guardian commentator, praised Mr Willetts for finding the millions of pounds needed to set up the Birth Cohort Study. “For once here is a politician doing the right thing for the right reasons with nothing he or his government can expect to gain from it,” she said. “In the long and distinguished history of British social science these birth cohort studies really are the crown jewels, as all of you who draw upon them so frequently for your work will know.
“Studying ourselves is something the British do exceptionally well: social science, geneticists, psychologists, demographers, medical researchers, epidemiologists flock here from all over the world seeking answers to fundamental questions from our unique series of cohort birth studies, and no one else has anything quite like them.”
Examples of findings were the link between smoking smaller babies, and between height and nutrition. “Only cohort studies could have revealed the sudden slow-down in social mobility…for those born between 1958 and 1970.”
She said that social science had done relatively well under this government, and David Willetts had played a “blinder” in getting funding for the study.
However though there were world-class data, there was not world-class social policy by the government – “background was still destiny” for many people in the country, and it was difficult for any government to change this: “At best Labour only – almost – stopped inequality getting worse”, she said.
Ziyad Marar, Global Publishing Director for SAGE, said that there had been “hefty attacks” on social science funding in the US, with social science being partly removed from the National Science Foundation – though it was only an $11 million budget out of a total $7.6 billion pot – “a piece of intellectual vandalism”.
“In the UK context social science faring somewhat better,” he said, pointing to the launch of the What Works initiative. SAGE would launch in the autumn, with the LSE, a book on the impact of in social science.
Two examples of longitudinal studies were presented at the launch.
Heather Joshi AcSS, Professor of Economic and Developmental Demography, Institute of Education, London, told the launch that there had been huge changes in motherhood – working as a mother was the norm rather than the exception today.
The effects of working were looked at in seven UK longitudinal studies carried out in recent decades, she said. In the older studies “the outcomes…do find some negative association between child outcomes and maternal employment,” said Professor Joshi.
“The adverse effects were more likely to be associated with full-time work than part-time work and more in verbal, cognitive or academic scores than in behavioural adjustments.”
However, this was not seen in studies of children born more recently. “As mothers’ employment went up the estimate of adverse outcomes have diminished to statistical insignificance,” she said.
“The issue of parents work has not yet been entirely solved – the government is still working on developing a new look for maternity leave, turning it shared parenting leave, and the quality of child care is still a burning issue.”
A press release about Professor Joshi’s work can be seen HERE
Professor Diana Kuh, Director, NRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing, spoke about her research using the 1946 Birth Cohort Study, which has followed 5,500 men and women at regular intervals during their lives since their birth in that year.
She found that by 65, two-thirds of those still alive had a serious clinical disorder that needed medical supervision. The latest research testing their physical and mental abilities of those aged 60-64 found that those in the lowest of nine socio-economic classes scored 6-13% below those in the top class. “The health legacy of social inequalities in childhood persists right up to retirement,” she told the audience.
• Around 100 policy-makers, academics and journalists attended the launch.
For a video of the event, please go to:
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