Essex secures £138m investment in social sciences

  • Date

    Fri 20 Oct 23

people walking in a town centre

As a powerhouse of social science expertise, the University of Essex is delighted to have secured nearly £138m of funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

This long-term investment, announced today by the UKRI (UK Research and Innovation), will support the collection of world-leading social science data and how to access it, which is vital to support effective research and policy design and implementation.

Supporting Understanding Society

An impressive £100.8m of funding has been awarded to secure the next stage of Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study based at the Institute for Social and Economic Research

Understanding Society has grown to become a world-leading longitudinal study – in the past ten years it has been used by over 38,500 researchers and contributed to over 11,250 research publications. The dataset is also used as the backbone of official statistics on poverty and income dynamics in the UK.

This new investment will ensure the UK has robust data on its population now and in the future by supporting a further six waves of data collection. This will extend the study to 2032, eventually giving researchers access to more than 40 years of robust in-depth data on the changing nature of UK society across multiple generations. 

Continuing work of UK Data Service

A further £37.5m has been awarded to the UK Data Service, the national research infrastructure that provides trusted access and training to use the UK’s largest collection of economic, population and social research data for teaching, learning and public benefit.

As curator of the largest collection of digital social science data in the UK, the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex has been a world leader in research data management, data governance and ethics for over 50 years. Its flagship Trusted Research Environment, UKDS SecureLab, has also provided safe access to sensitive data for over ten years. 

Welcoming the announcement, University of Essex Vice-Chancellor Professor Anthony Forster said: “Data-driven social science research is addressing the greatest global challenges of our time, so we are delighted with this major investment in Understanding Society and the UK Data Service. Our highly-trusted status in collecting, storing, analysing and sharing data has helped Essex make it the world-leading social science university it is today.”

By following the same households over a long period of time, Understanding Society gives a long-term perspective on the causes and consequences of social, economic, and cultural change, while interviewing everyone in a household allows the study to capture how different generations experience life.  

Data collected includes behaviours, attitudes and views, as well as social and financial information from every member of each household from the age of ten. Recent innovations include the collection of biological data to allow scientists to analyse the links between social and economic circumstances and health. 

Director of Understanding Society, Professor Michaela Benzeval, said: “Producing high quality data is at the core of our study. With a longitudinal survey, like Understanding Society, the value of the study becomes greater the longer it goes on. We’re delighted that UKRI and the ESRC are continuing to invest in Understanding Society – their long-term support helps us build knowledge and provide vital evidence on life in the UK.”Working in close partnership with government, the Office for National Statistics, and many other government and non-governmental organisation data owners, the UK Data Service has delivered a crucial element of our national research data infrastructure for decades.

Professor Debora Price, Senior Leadership Group, the UK Data Service said: “There is barely a quantitative social scientist in the UK who has not used the Data Service for research or training. This award is fantastic news, ensuring that our highly skilled team can continue our work for years to come in an ever-changing and rapidly evolving data landscape.”

Data helping policy

Minister of State at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, George Freeman, said: “Understanding how the UK lives and changes over time is key to ensuring services like healthcare, transport and education best serve the public and that hardworking taxpayers’ money is spent wisely.

“By investing £138m towards continued gathering of key household data, we are enabling decision-making that benefits us all while laying the groundwork for new discoveries that enhance our lives.”

ESRC Executive Chair, Stian Westlake, said: “ESRC builds and sustains world-class social science data infrastructure on behalf of the UK.  By making this substantial, decade long, investment, we are significantly boosting the insights and capability that will be available to researchers, policymakers, and others, to help improve all our lives.

“Understanding Society is now the largest long term panel study of households in the world, providing researchers and policymakers with a deep and broad understanding of the causes and consequences of social, economic and cultural changes in people’s lives in the UK.

“The UK Data Service is an international leader in the technical development of digital standards, data curation, research data management, data-skills training and impact.  They are a key part of our research infrastructure and support users from 146 countries.”