Social Research on Inequality and Poverty in the UK in 2019

Overview by Gillian R Smith

Many of the research pieces I summarise for the Social Research Association’s fortnightly e-news are on the themes of inequality and poverty. The last year has seen the publication of many pieces of influential research and I briefly summarise some of them – with links to reports here. 

In a year when the UN  special rapporteur on extreme poverty described poverty in the skynews-poverty-uk_4508092.jpgUK as ‘systematic and tragic’ the reports published this year paint a picture of continuing, and in some respects deepening poverty, particularly in certain geographical areas and amongst some social groups. Moreover, social mobility appears to have stagnated.

Looking to the future, a number of significant new initiatives were launched this year and are due to report over the next few years, including the Deaton Review which will aim to provide a comprehensive understanding of inequality in 21st century Britain.

Overall Trends in Poverty and Inequality

A number of important reviews of overall patterns of poverty and inequality were published over the year. 

A  paper from CASE at the LSE examined economic inequalities in the UK in the two decades since 1995-96.  The analysis shows that economic outcomes improved for all population groups in the first decade, whilst the second decade witnessed near-stagnation accompanied by continuing high levels of inequality. 

The paper also shows how the apparent stability of inequality in the period since 2006 masked the way in which the nature and depth of economic inequalities changed after the economic crisis. In particular, this period saw substantial, albeit complex differences between and within groups, with younger adults losing out compared to older people.

A  report from the Social Metrics Commission looked at the extent and nature of poverty in the UK today and how this has changed since 2000/01. It concluded that 7 million people are now living in ‘persistent poverty and that, despite fluctuations, overall rates of poverty have changed relatively little since the millennium, but this trend hides significant changes in rates of poverty among different groups.

The methodology was developed and published last year and the government subsequently agreed to produce ‘experimental statistics’ based on this approach (see below). 

The State of the Nation 2018 – 19 report from the Social Mobility Commission also shows how inequality is still deeply entrenched in Britain, although, interestingly, Scotland and Wales are slightly more socially mobile than the rest of GB.

Moreover, it concludes that social mobility appears to have stagnated over the last four years to the extent that the better off are nearly 80% more likely to end up in professional jobs compared with those from a working class background. The report shows how inequality is pervasive at all stages of life and makes a number of recommendations aimed at Ministers and policy makers, school and university chief and employers. 

Poverty has a number of consequences for those experiencing it, including homelessness, poor and unstable housing circumstances, food poverty, educational disadvantage and fuel poverty hob-680x280.jpgand numerous reports appeared on these and other themes. For example, a report from the Committee on Fuel Poverty highlighted that progress in England is stalling.

Caitlin Robinson of the University of Manchester argues that the causes of fuel poverty are multi-dimensional and changes to the housing market have exposed a new subset of households to fuel poverty. Caitlin concludes that current flagship policies are unlikely to address many of the structural drivers of fuel poverty amongst precarious households and that policy makers in Westminster should look to Scotland for inspiration in designing a more ambitious and wide-reaching fuel poverty strategy.

Geographical Inequalities

The flagship English Indices of Deprivation was updated and published this year along with a number of other important studies that uncover the geographical patterns of poverty and inequality and change over time.

The 2019 English Indices of Deprivation data release contains a wealth of information about the location of multiply deprived areas across England.
In addition to a comprehensive summary the release provides links to: a Technical Report and comprehensive guidance documents, along with a series of supporting data tables, interactive tools and Open Data facilities to aid user’s exploration and mapping of the data.

0_Deprivation-constituency-mapJPG.jpgIn many respects the data show that deprived areas are located in the same places as in the previous update published in 2015. As previously the data shows how deprived areas are dispersed across England –  as many as 61% of local authority districts contain at least one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England. 

Overall, the local authority districts of Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Knowsley, Kingston upon Hull and Manchester contain the highest proportions of neighbourhoods amongst the most deprived in England. However, a significant change from 2015  is that many London Boroughs – including Tower Hamlets in particular  – have seen a reduction in the proportions of their neighbourhoods that are highly deprived (relative to the rest of England).

Researchers at the University of Sheffield also published their ‘Atlas of Inequality’ that maps  levels of inequality across 149 commuting zones – known as Travel To Work Areas (TTWAs) – across England.  The research used three separate measures of inequality: the Gini coefficient; the 20:20 index – a measure of economic imbalance within areas; and ‘Moran’s I’ which measures the geographical clustering of different income groups. 

The report again contains a wealth of information. Commenting on the results, Professor Rae, said: “Our atlas highlights the fact that no one measure of inequality paints the full picture and that methodological diversity is needed before we start to think of solutions to inequality at a local, sub-national and national level”.

And, new research published by the Local Trust and Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI) suggests that places to meet, connectivity – both physical and digital, and an active, engaged community are vital to securing better social and economic outcomes for people living in deprived neighbourhoods.

The research combined multiple national data sources to create a statistically-robust ‘community needs’ index to identify 206 ‘left behind areas’ (wards) in England. Particular concentrations are evident in post- industrial areas in northern England and in coastal areas in southern England, but also on post-war social housing estates on the peripheries of cities and towns.

Future Research  

Looking to the future, a number of significant new initiatives were announced.

The Deaton review’ of Inequalities was launched. This is a wide ranging, five year cross national study that will draw on experts from across a number of disciplines in order to build a comprehensive understanding of inequalities in the 21st century.  It is being co-ordinated by the IFS and aims to understand inequalities in living standards, health, political participation and opportunity, not just between the rich and poor but by gender, ethnicity, geography and education too. 

An initial report focused on existing evidence relating to the UK.  The overall message is that widening inequalities in pay, health and opportunities in the UK are undermining trust in democracy. 

As noted above, the DWP announced that it will publish ‘experimental’ statistics that reflect the Social Metrics Commission report on measuring of poverty. The key difference from the current official measure, based on households below average income, is that the commission’s measure takes account of the costs that different people face such as costs of disability, and the liquid assets they have access to. Many commentators argue that  this more accurately reflects the realities and experiences of living in poverty.

DWP say they will also be assessing whether and how the commission’s measure ‘can be developed and improved further’ and propose to publish these ‘experimental statistics’ after poverty statistics based on the current measure come out in 2020.

ONS announced that they are working to improve the coherence of statistics on homelessness by bringing together homelessness statistics from across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for the first time. forsaken-1273885__480.png

The new work suggests the profile of homeless people may be changing and that there has been an increase in the complexity of homeless household needs in recent years, particularly in relation to physical and mental health conditions.

ONS has also been working with the Centre for Homelessness Impact (CHI) to look deeper into the causes of homelessness across the UK. There is also ongoing work with organisations that support and represent people who are homeless so that as many people as possible can make sure they are counted in the 2021 census.

Finally a report from the Resolution Foundation, in association with UCL, concludes that much good work has already been done to highlight the inequalities faced by disadvantaged groups across the UK. However, it reminds us that the bigger challenge now is how we mainstream all of this thinking into the policy making machine. 

The report also highlights evidence gaps relating to absent data, the failure to ask the right questions, and an incomplete understanding of the effectiveness of different policy interventions. It draws out 5 key lessons for how to develop a consistent and effective approach.


Strategic Research Planning in Whitehall?

The Government’s Areas of Research Interest Reports (ARI) were introduced as a key mechanism for improving the planning of government research and improving liaison and co-ordination with the wider research community. The majority of departments have published ARI reports, but how useful are they?

UK government departments require research evidence for a range of reasons and spend millions of pounds on R and D every year.  If this spending is to be effective in providing the evidence needed to underpin decision making, government research programmes need to be carefully planned and delivered. This is challenging given that government departments are complex entities with multiple goals and vested interests. A key challenge is to cut through traditional ways of doing things in order to achieve an appropriate balance of spending between different objectives, focused on delivering high quality timely evidence that fills genuine gaps, addressing long term as well as short term needs, and complements research funded via other routes. 

The dangers of poor planning and lack of, or very selective, liaison with the wider research community have of course been all too evident in some instances in the past, for example, in 2005 a review of social research at the Department for Transport revealed a less than rosy picture with regard to how programmes were formulated and managed, with patterns of spend tending to reflect history and professional vested interests rather than genuine medium – long term evidence needs. This report was particularly critical, at the time, of the department’s management of its existing knowledge base.

A more strategic approach?

The 2015 “Nurse Review’ of the Research Councils highlighted the need for improvement signand advocated a more strategic approach to government departmental research programmes. In particular Nurse called on government to facilitate a more sophisticated dialogue with the wider research sector and specifically advocated maintaining ‘statements of need’, which set out the most important research questions confronting  Departments. It went on ‘these will require work across the Government analytical professions to develop’.

Areas of Research Interest reports

In response to Nurse the government has developed the ‘Areas of Research Interest (ARI)’ approach which requires departments to set out their main research questions in order to ‘align scientific and research evidence from academia with policy development and decision making, access a wider range of suppliers and engage with researchers’.

ARI reports started to appear early in 2017 and the latest tranche were published in May last year.   DWP have also recently published an updated report. Whilst these are a welcome step, it is fair to say that some are better than others. fullsizeoutput_138Some are almost a rehash of departmental annual reports which restate key departmental objectives. Whilst I acknowledge that it is difficult to produce this kind of strategic document, in some cases it is difficult to get a handle from the reports on what the real evidence gaps and priorities actually are. Most departments already have an extensive evidence base on many of the issues contained in their ARI report and it is difficult to get a sense of what departments think they already know and an assessment of the really key gaps which in turn should be influencing the balance of spending between objectives. Indeed, the lists of bullet point issues contained in some reports are not really helpful unless one is willing to take on the huge task of mapping the existing evidence base against the numerous issues listed. Departments should already have done this and it would be helpful if reports were more transparent.

It is now two years since the first tranche of ARI reports appeared but it is unclear what the plans are for updating them are. It is assumed that some of the gaps identified will have been filled, some will be in the process of being filled and some gaps are likely to remain. It is true that DWP have recently published an updated report but this is the only department where the ARI reports appear to be a live issue, and even here the 2019 update is very difficult to locate on their website as it does not sit in the same place as the 2018 ARI report. . 

A key problem is that few of the reports provide links to departmental research programme webpages. Many of these are organised along disciplinary lines and problems are made worse by the fact that none of these programme pages are organised around the headings in the ARI reports, indeed some of them don’t even mention the department’s ARI report.

Cross Cutting – Cross Government Research?

Another key recommendation of Nurse was there should be a cross government statement regarding the Government’s overall R&D needs, spanning the full range of Government Departments. It is now over three years since the Nurse review was published yet such a cross departmental document does not seem to exist at present.

In fact, cross cutting research needs are notable by their absence from most reports and there is a tendency for research questions to be formulated through the lens of individual departmental agendas, reflecting the way in which current ministers view their issues. This is not helpful, particularly in facilitating liaison with outside bodies, which tend not to be organised around Whitehall silos.

Since the reports were published the new UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) has published its strategic priorities. This is a high level document that does recognise the importance of cross cutting, multi disciplinary research and labels it as such. However, it is difficult to see how UKRI can function as effectively as intended if some government departments continue to view their research priorities (no doubt reflecting their policy priorities) through such a narrow set of lenses.

 Making a reality of  cross cutting research will require a change of culture within the  civil service, but is unclear how the new analysis function in the civil service is shaping up.  office-1209640_1920-1-630x470This was first mooted in 2017 and at a conference early last year the late Sir Jeremy Heywood challenged the community ‘to become more visible so that analysis shapes the decisions on important issues facing the UK’. Since then the government economic service and social research service have published a joint strategy setting out a broad framework for a joint approach. However, it is unclear what is actually happening in practice and it remains to be seen what will become of this development given current preoccupations with Brexit as well as the strong vested interests of some professional groupings.

Concluding Comments

It is early days, but so far at least there is little evidence to suggest that the ARI reports are having a major impact on research planning and delivery across Whitehall. Indeed, it is difficult not to conclude that, for some departments at least, the production of ARI reports has been something of a tick box exercise.

Effective research planning requires strong internal champions and effective external challenge if vested interests concerned with preserving the status quo or ‘their share of the budget’ are to be effectively challenged.

It also requires adequate staff resources, led by  senior professionals with sufficient resources to devote time and space to long term research planning. There are signs of this in the DWP report but it is challenging in a context where staff have many competing short term day to day demands on their time. Staff cutbacks on non Brexit issues have been significant and this, coupled with the volatile political climate does not make the ideal backdrop for effective research planning.

Social Research Matters – January 2019 update


The Changing Shape of Research Council Funding  

Research funding is going through a period of rapid change and recent paper from the ESRC aims to provide information on these changes in order to help researchers to navigate the new UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) funding streams, some of which will not be led by the ESRC. 

The piece makes the point that social science issues and methods are key to many of the emerging topics, but stresses that agility will be required by institutions and researchers in order to respond to relevant opportunities, which are likely to emerge at short notice and require working across disciplinary boundaries. A recent paper from Jennifer Rubin gives a flavour of this.

University Leaders warn of dangers of no-deal Brexit

University leaders have written to politicians and government spelling out the risks for research, staff and students if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. Bodies, representing more than 150 higher education providers across the UK, say the impact of a no deal scenario could lead to “an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover.” Large numbers of EU staff and students are starting the new year facing significant uncertainty about their futures and vital research links will be compromised. 

2021 Census (E & W) White Paper published 

The 2021 Census White Paper was published just before Christmas and sets out the recommendations made by the UK Statistics Authority. Following user engagement, they are recommending the same content as the 2011 Census with the exceptions of adding new questions on sexual orientation, gender identity and past service in the armed forces, and dropping of questions on the year in which the respondent last worked, and the number of rooms in the household.  

The census will be predominantly online but with a high level of assistance available to those who need it and paper forms for people who cannot complete the form online. 

New ONS Policies on Data and Surveys

Improved access to datasets, including those held by government bodies, will allow ONS and others to provide the UK with better statistics.  However, new data- sharing powers mean a heightened responsibility to protect personal information and ONS has published updated and revised policies on the use, management and security of data.

In a separate blog from ONS, Laura Wilson discusses how they are tackling the current challenges of undertaking social surveys in order to preserve their value and relevance. Measures discussed include: designing ‘mobile first’ and using behavioural insights to design respondent materials.


The British Psychological Society has published new guidance on handling research data following the implementation of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). S


Research Findings

Brexit and Public Opinion 2019

The UK appears to be ever more polarised on Brexit with ‘Brexit identities’ becoming stronger than party identities – e.g. whilst only one in 16 people do not have a Brexit identity (e.g. remain or leave), more than one in five say they had no party identity. This is the headline message in a major new report drawing in contributions from 34 authors. This significant polarisation, across the general population, and amongst MP’s, is exacerbated by the finding that new information about Brexit is interpreted in ways that reinforce pre-existing views.

Measuring Trends in Crime

Measuring the level of crime is complex and a recent release demonstrates the value of looking at data from different sources alongside each other in order to gain a balanced picture.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) measures people’s experiences of crime and is widely regarded as the best source on overall trends in crime. The latest data release shows  that whereas recent decades have seen falls in overall levels of crime, in the last year this fall seems to have stabilised.

Police data on recorded incidents has a number of limitations and is used to complement data from the crime survey. This and NHS data suggest that, although there has been no change in commonly occurring types of violent crime, there does appear to have been a rise in lower-volume, but higher-harm, violence that the crime survey does not capture well  e.g. knife crime.

The recent release also, for the first time, includes data based on the new method of calculating repeat victimisation. This new methodology has little impact on the long-term picture of total crime, though the number of incidents of violent crime increases slightly.

Productivity from a Workers Perspective

A recent report based on analysis of first findings from the 2017 Skills and Employment survey, suggests that a significant number of workers can identify changes that would make them more productive and efficient. The ‘productivity drivers’ identified included listening to staff. However, in the assessment of the authors, these practices have become less prevalent since 2006, precisely at a time when UK productivity growth has been sluggish and the economy would, potentially, have benefited most. 

Research Methods

Response Latencies as indicators of survey data quality

Survey methodologists are increasingly interested in how long it takes respondents to answer questions – the so-called ‘response latencies’. In cognitive psychology shorter latencies are taken as indicative of more strongly held attitudes. But it has also been argued that short latencies represent the amount of cognitive effort a respondent has expended in answering a question, with shorter response times indicating less effort and a lower quality response. The characteristics of the questions themselves will also have an impact and NCRM has been undertaking research into the joint influences of respondents, questions and interviewers.

The ONS Longitudinal Study

The ONS Longitudinal Study is perhaps the least well known of the longitudinal studies despite its  potential for undertaking research across the life course. It started in 1971 and involves linking census data (from 1971, 81, 91, 01 and 2011) on individuals in the sample with routine event registrations (e.g. deaths, cancer registrations). 

The size of the LS sample means  it is possible to study relatively small groups and has minimal bias due to non-response or attrition. The key disadvantages are the limited set of questions asked, changes in definitions/questions for several variables over time, lack of behavioural data and the fact that census updates only happen every 10 years.

Realist Evaluation

A recent book on ‘realist evaluation’ aims to support researchers to deal with the complexities involved in measuring impact, and to foster critical thinking and flexibility in making informed choices during the research process. 

Linear Regression Models using R

The Pew Research Centre has produced a short guide on how to estimate and interpret linear regression models with survey data using R.


Social Research Matters: December update

Research Findings

Is Britain Fairer?

Three reports from the Equality and Human Rights Commission report the results of a three-yearly project to review of the state of equality and human rights in England, Scotland and Wales. The reports reveal some improvements in education, political participation and work, but, at the same time uncover an increase in poverty, ‘forgotten’ groups, and regressions in justice and personal security. Child poverty has increased and infant mortality has risen for the first time in decades, whereas tax and welfare reforms continue to disproportionately impact the poorest in society.

UK Poverty 2018

JRF’s annual state-of-the-nation report, UK Poverty 2018, estimates that 4.1 million children now live in poverty  – half a million more than five years ago following ‘a relentless rise in the number of working families struggling to make ends meet’. Indeed, the report finds that in-work poverty has been rising even faster than employment. As well as describing the way in which poverty has changed amongst different social groups, the report provides an overview of how poverty is linked to disability and ethnicity and also looks briefly at persistent poverty and destitution.

Understanding the Dynamics of Ageing

The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) collects extensive data from a representative sample of men and women living in England who are aged 50 and over. It has taken place bi-annually since it started in 2002. The latest report, based on eight waves of data, confirms the extent to which physical and social environments play a crucial role in well-being amongst older people. The report also includes analysis of changes in the state pension age for women and suggests that a substantial proportion of women approaching retirement do not know precisely when they will reach state pension age.

People with ‘Borderline Intellectual Impairment’ face inequalities

A new report based on secondary analysis of data from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) sets out the extent to which people with ‘borderline intellectual impairment’ (BII)  face inequalities in health and use of services compared with the rest of the population. BII is common, affecting at least one adult in ten in England  but this group tend to face high levels of poor mental health, poorer general health, and many limitations in their daily lives, but they do not receive the services they need.


Public Policy 10 years after the crisis

In this year’s Campaign for Social Science/Sage Publishing annual lecture, Paul Johnson noted the huge number of remaining challenges as well as a range of future challenges coming down the track. Issues include the impacts of technology on the labour market, growing inequalities, and funding a welfare state that will become more expensive.  Paul’s key message was that policies and perceptions take far too long to catch up with the reality of what is happening and long term policy making needs to be based on a broad understanding of the social and economic trends and challenges. However, he could not point to much evidence that this lesson is being heeded at present.

Major Boost for Humanities and Social Science Research

The Wolfson Foundation has awarded the British Academy (BA) £10 million in order to boost high quality research in the Humanities and Social Sciences across the UK. BA intends to use the funds to deliver a transformative programme to support fellowships for early career researchers.They will also be setting up the ‘Gladstone Institute’, a new network to enable early career researchers to collaborate across subjects and institutions and to ‘inform police and practice beyond the academic world’.  

Improving Data on Separated Families

At any one time, there are more than four million children living in separated families in the UK. A report published last year called for improved survey data, particularly about non-resident parents, in order to inform decision making on issues such as child support, welfare benefits, and housing. A new report from the Nuffield Foundation reports the results of an experimental study used to test ways of achieving improvements such as collecting data directly from non-resident parents (rather than relying on resident parent reports) and gathering data on the reasons why families separate.

UK Research and Innovation Guide to GDPR

It is important that researchers understand what the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) means for them and the personal data that is processed during their research. Compiled with the support of the Information Commissioner’s Office, a UKRI GDPR overview for researchers provides guidance and sets out the appropriate lawful basis for data processing.

Clinical Trials fail to publish results

The Commons Science and Technology Committee has expressed concern that nearly half of clinical trials fail to publish their results. This selective non-publication—‘or publication bias’—of results distorts the published evidence base and is a threat to research integrity and the committee  is calling for increased transparency.

Linking Research and Policy – What Works?

In an interesting piece, the Alliance for Useful Evidence argue that improving the supply of good evidence is not the same as translating that evidence into meaningful changes in policy design and delivery. In order to try to uncover what works in ‘What Works’, the Alliance, in partnership with UCL, did an exhaustive systematic review and scoping study of all the relevant research, and counted 150 different techniques. One of the key messages is that it is not enough to set up unstructured interactions between policy makers and researchers and hope for the best, but ‘evidence champions’ willing to spearhead evidence informed policy making in their organisations are a key ingredient to success. 

Research and Innovation Infrastructure Roadmap : update

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is building a roadmap of the UK’s current research and innovation infrastructure in order to inform their future planning. In a social science context infrastructure means things like data collections and services, specific capability infrastructures eg the BES, and broad remit capabilities such as the Centre for Longitudinal Studies. UKRI has published an analysis of responses to the first consultation in which the value of longitudinal evidence comes across strongly. Over the winter the team will be exploring the gaps with a view to publishing the final roadmap in spring 2019. Information about omissions in the current document should be communicated to

Help shape the Age 50 sweep of the 1970 British Cohort Study
The Centre for Longitudinal Studies is seeking input to help determine the content of the Age 50 Sweep of the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70). They are asking anyone who is interested – including academics, policy makers and representatives of the third sector – to put forward their suggestions for content and questions by Friday 11 January 2019. Your suggestions will help to produce a high-quality survey that meets the needs of researchers across a range of disciplines and which has the potential to influence policy. 




Social Research update :October

Research Findings

What might increased Social Trust mean for Wellbeing?

New results from the British Social Attitudes Survey indicate a significant recent increase in levels of social trust. The proportion of people agreeing that: ‘generally speaking people can be trusted’, increased from 47% in both 1998 and 2014 to 54%  by 2017. Whilst the results are interesting, the rise should not be conflated with levels of trust in government or other institutions. 

People with higher levels of education and those in managerial and professional occupations are significantly more trustful than other groups. Moreover, levels of social participation and social connections were also found to be connected to social trust, factors which are in turn linked to higher levels of wellbeing. 

A Divided Britain 

Britain is divided across cultural, age and education lines, according to a report from ‘Hope not Hate’ which warns of a potential rise in far-right and anti-Islam sentiments unless politicians tackle long-standing disaffections reflected in the Brexit vote. 

The research, based on 60 focus groups, segmentation analysis by populus and yougov polls, the latest one conducted, in July 2018, uncovers significant geographic splits between people of varying attitudes and identifies ‘six tribes’. And, the most hostile attitudes to migrants and minorities are concentrated in places left behind by globalisation including isolated coastal communities and single industry towns.

Attitudes to Brexit highly polarised 

John Curtice has released new evidence on attitudes to Brexit showing just how polarised attitudes have become. Nearly nine in ten members of the Natcen mixed mode panel said that they were either a ‘Remainer’ or a ‘Leaver’, whereas less than two-thirds claim to identify with a political party. Moreover, no less than 44% say they are a ‘very strong Remainer’ or a ‘very strong Leaver’, whereas only 9% claim to be a very strong supporter of a political party. Furthermore, those who identify strongly with one side or the other of the Brexit debate have very distinctive views underpinned by emotion and identity. 

The Future of Work 

A British Academy and Royal Society evidence review of the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the future of work detects an emerging consensus that around 10-30% of jobs in the UK are automatable. It acknowledges that the transition to an automated workplace ‘will not be painless for all’ and echos existing concerns that, in the short term at least, AI could contribute to a widening of inequality. However, the Academies argue, there is a great deal that can do to shape the way that new AI technologies change the economy and the workforce, and to ensure the benefits are shared equally.

Some children aiming higher than others

A new report suggests UK children have their sights set on ambitious jobs but a closer look at the aspirations of boys and girls from different ethnic backgrounds shows that some are aiming higher than others.


Academy calls for greater investment in Social Science

The Academy of Social Science has called on the Commons Science and Technology committee to encourage UKRI to take a wider view of the configuration of its current strategic themes. The Academy adds ‘with modest extra investments in the social sciences relevant to the broader themes relating to Industrial Strategy and the other ‘grand challenges’, UKRI and the UK are more likely to meet the goals and aspirations of a transformational change in the UK’s future prospects’.

The Administrative Data Research Partnership 

It has been announced that combined data from across government and UK public bodies will be made available to ‘high quality’ research teams, thus providing a secure route for accredited researchers to use de-identified data. The ADRP is being led by the ESRC which will strategically acquire and curate admin data with the aim of driving high-quality research on major societal challenges The National Statistician and ONS are closely involved and the UK Statistics Authority will be responsible for accrediting researchers. 

This represents a major push, but the success or otherwise of the initiative will depend on how far the ADRP learns lessons from its predecessor – the ADRN – in tackling the tough challenge of extracting data from government departments and other bodies. 

New ONS Evidence Centres

The Office for National Statistics has launched five new centres, each focusing on a key policy in order to provide evidence to inform better decision making. This development reflects the wider changes taking place at ONS aimed at producing new insights on areas of particular, and often cross-cutting, policy interest; utilising new sources of data; adopting the latest tools and approaches; and, working in collaboration with others. The five topic areas are as follows: Ageing and Demography; Equalities and Inclusion; Crime and Justice; Subnational Analysis and International Migration.

Building Effective Research Teams

Effective team working is essential to most research endeavours in government, charities, research institutes and across academia, but what are the lessons for building effective teams? A recent paper identifies the keys to success as being a clear definition of the scope of a project and explicit agreement on individual responsibilities. At the start face-to-face meetings can establish the ground rules and expectations for all members of the team, including agreement on deadlines and monitoring/enforcement mechanisms. Candid and timely feedback limits the damage that emergent problems can create and innovative coordination and communication mechanisms are also essential. 

Internet based Social Science Research

Platforms such as twitter and facebook have heralded what Kandy Woodfield and Ron Iphoren refer to as ‘an explosion of internet based social science research’. A recent blog provides an overview of the issues covered in a new book edited by Kandy: ‘The Ethics of Online Research’. 


Social Research Update: September

New Measure of UK Poverty

A new measure of poverty, developed by the independent Social Metrics Commission, is different from other measures because it takes account of all material resources, not just incomes, and accounts for the inescapable costs (e.g. childcare) that make some families more likely than others to experience poverty. It also includes an assessment of housing adequacy.

The overall message is that there are 14.2 million people in poverty in the UK, with poverty being especially prevalent in families with at least one disabled person, single-parent families, and households where no one works or which are dependent for income on irregular or zero-hours jobs. Looking forward, the Commission hopes that the new measure will help to target policy interventions more effectively and make it easier to hold politicians and others to account. It also calls for more research and for improvement in the collection and use of UK survey and administrative data.  

The Perils of Perception – Addressing Misinformation

The Perils of Perception study covers up to 40 countries and is a unique analysis of why people are so wrong about even the basic facts across a number of key issues. According to Bobby Duffy, the explanations for this perceptions gap are wide ranging and complex. Our beliefs about the world are shaped by biases and heuristics, rational ignorance, our statistical skills and level of critical literacy – as well as the influence of media and our own experiences. Perceptions are also moulded by ‘emotional innumeracy’ – the tendency to remember emotional, vivid narratives. Suggested solutions to the problem include better training in critical, statistical and news literacy starting in schools, more fact checking and an acceptance that ‘stories’ and research analysis do not need to be at different ends of the spectrum.

Explaining inequalities across the life course

In her inaugural lecture, Alissa Goodman explored the root causes of the economic inequalities in our society, and why they have been so difficult to budge. Level of education is a key explanation, but children’s mental health is emerging as another root cause of inequality across the life course.

UK Statistics Authority calls for better joining up of data  

A new report from UK Statistics Authority notes that successful examples of data linkage within government are the exception, rather than the rule, and that the potential significant benefits are being squandered as a result. It identifies six outcomes that need to happen. At the core is the need for a system that demonstrates its trustworthiness as a custodian of public data and uses this as a platform to support greater use of data sharing and linking to deliver insights. Other key points include a need for analysts to have the skills and resources required to carry out high quality data linkage and analysis. UK national statistician John Pullinger has agreed to respond to this work with a detailed action plan.

Methods and Innovation hub launched

The Methods and Innovation hub will be an independent source of best practice advice that facilitates innovation in social research methods. Led by Gerry Nicolaas it pools the vast and diverse experience of NatCen’s researchers and operational staff, collaborating to maximise agility and creativity at a time of accelerating change in the field. It will open up new opportunities for methodological research and enable greater cooperation with the wider research community, as well as establishing strong relationships with government, academic and private institutions.

New Mental Health Networks announced

Eight new Mental Health Networks have been announced by UKRI in order to bring researchers, charities and other organisations together to address important mental health research questions. The new networks will aim to embrace a collaborative ethos, bringing together researchers from a wide range of disciplines, including the social sciences, covering themes such as the profound health inequalities for people with severe mental ill health, social isolation, youth and student mental health, domestic and sexual violence, and the value of community assets.

Government responds to Commons report on Research Integrity

The Government has published its response to the Commons S and T committee report on Research Integrity. The response is broadly supportive of the recommendations and states: ’we will continue to work closely with UKRI to ensure that researchers are able to work in a culture which is conducive to the highest standards, and that those who use research, and the public at large, can have absolute faith in the quality and reliability of the UK’s world-leading base, now and into the future’.

Notes and Events

Sarah Foxen from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology highlights some of the benefits of engaging with Parliament through research and shares some practical ideas on how to do so.

Helen Kara will formally launch her new book ‘ Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives’ at an event being held in London on 8 November. 

The UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship scheme (FLF) aims to develop, retain, attract and sustain R & I talent in the UK. Providing up to seven years of funding, for at least 550 early-career researchers and innovators, the scheme will tackle difficult and novel challenges. The second round is now open (closing date 31 October).



Social Research Matters: August update

Research Findings

Public Doubts about the Science on Climate Change

Only one-third of people in the UK, Germany, Norway and France believe that there is a strong scientific consensus on the reality of climate change according to an article in the latest issue of the ESRC’s “Society Now’ magazine. The authors conclude that this may act as a significant barrier to the success of policies aimed at addressing man made climate change. The authors recommend action in order to help people to ‘join up the dots’ between periods of extreme weather and climate change.

Rethinking Social Housing?

A recent report from the Chartered Institute of Housing calls for a common definition and understanding of the role and purpose of social housing and for an end to the stigma associated with this kind of housing. Based on a series of workshops, evidence reviews and survey work undertaken by IPSOS MORI, the report reveals broad support for social housing, particularly for the most vulnerable and those who cannot afford the cost of renting privately. It also uncovers some myths, including about the extent to which social housing is currently occupied by immigrants.

Is there a New Geography of Brexit?

Recent research has generated significant interest, suggesting that 112 constituencies have shifted from being ‘majority leave’ to ‘majority remain’ areas. John Curtice and others have commented that this analysis, based on modelling of a yougov sample of circa 15,000, is not particularly out of line with other polling which has been indicating a slight shift towards remain for a number of months.

Evidence on whether there are particular groups (including Labour Party members) that are disproportionately shifting from leave to remain is mixed and somewhat contradictory.  Curtice sums up by pointing to the importance of people who did not vote in the 2016 referendum. We have known for some time that this group is more likely to say they would now support remain and they could, therefore, be key in determining the outcome of any subsequent poll or referendum.



Tackling Misinformation and Disinformation

In  this year’s RSS Beveridge lecture, Will Moy, Director of Full Fact said that we are on the threshold of an explosion in data and have important choices to make about how to harness data for the good of society.  Other key points made during the lecture include 1. Statistical publications need to present a more nuanced picture and delve below the headline messages; 2. Strategic questions need to be asked about what information is collected; 3. A richer understanding could be gained if statistics and social research were better integrated; 4. More ‘audience research’ is needed on what the public want from experts; and 5. Teamwork between researchers and communications experts is necessary in order to get our messages across. 

Parliamentary Enquiry into Balance and Effectiveness of R&I spending

The Commons Science and Technology committee is holding an enquiry into the ‘balance and effectiveness of research and innovation spending’ and would welcome written submissions by 28 September. Key questions include: the effectiveness of public spending on R&D; the rationale for deciding on the balance between different disciplines & research councils; block v responsive mode funding and the most effective way of phasing in the increase in R & D spending planned by UKRI over the next few years. 

Dissertation Data – Undergraduate resource pack launched

The UK Data Service has created a resource pack entitled “Dissertations and their data: promoting research integrity” which aims to introduce the idea of transparency in research into undergraduate teaching. The pack provides real examples of good practice and includes practical templates for consent, transcription, anonymisation and documentation – based upon templates created and recommended by the UK Data Service to researchers. The slides for teaching can also be adapted to suit various project needs and different disciplines.

ESRC Methods Festival Papers available

This year’s ESRC Research Methods Festival comprised over 58 sessions and 200 presentations. The presentations are now available to download and some of the sessions will be on the ncrm youtube channel shortly.

Facilitating comparisons between longitudinal studies

Alison Park, reflects on the recent Longitudinal Studies Review and argues that work led by CLOSER to enhance these studies by improving cross study comparability will be vital to their future sustainability. Demand for harmonisation is motivated by many research aims, including a desire to understand the experiences of different generations or to compare patterns of association across studies that cover different populations or life stages. A great deal of work has been undertaken to date or is currently underway and CLOSER have produced a range of  useful scientific outputs for researchers interested in cross-study research. There is also ‘Discovery’ which is a resource to help researchers find out detailed information about the data that is out there.

CLOSER are also running a workshop on the practice and management of cross study comparisons at the University of Manchester on 16 October.

UK Science under a ‘no deal’ Brexit

A technical note published by the government on 23 August says that it is the UK and EU’s intention that the eligibility of UK researchers to participate in Horizon 2020 will remain unchanged for the remaining duration of the programme. However, it goes on to stress the need to plan for every eventuality and sets out brief details of how an ‘underwrite guarantee’ would be managed in the event of a no deal Brexit. There are a number of exclusions and the proposals have been greeted with a mixed response. According to the ESRC, UKRI would manage the process, and in the first instance UK recipients of Horizon 2020 funding will be invited by UKRI to register their details on a dedicated portal on the website, expected to go live in the autumn.

Deliberative work to inform a second referendum?

Matthew Taylor argues that significant research and preparation is needed ahead of any second referendum on brexit, particularly one that involves three choices being set out on the ballot paper. He floats the idea of a Citizens Assembly which would make recommendations to parliament on the terms under which the referendum could be held.

Engaging with Government

Engaging with government is a 3 day course designed to provide an insight into the policy making process, and help participants to develop the skills needed to pursue the policy implications of their research. The course is open to early career researchers and the closing date for applications is 28 September.

Methods Update

Can a Computer do Qualitative Analysis?

The overall message from a recent piece by Daniel Turner is that machines cannot take the place of researchers in setting research questions and evaluating complex answers yielded by qualitative research.  However, for the right research questions and data sets, automated tools could open the door to new approaches; for example, tools could take on the role of a second coder and make it feasible to handle larger data sources in individual research projects (e.g. by speeding up more routine aspects of analysis).

A Guide to Ethnography

Ethnography is a long established research method for investigating cultural practices, rituals, routines and social norms, and is used to throw light on a range of research questions, including the differences between what people say and what they actually do.  A recent practical guide from IPSOS sets out what ethnography is and isn’t. It also discusses the skills needed to undertake (and analyse) ethnographic studies and how these differ from qualitative skills. There is also a discussion of decision making based on ethnographic insight.

Measuring changes in public opinion

The problems of using non random probability surveys to measure whether public opinion is changing are well known. In response, Patrick Sturgess and Jouni Kuha have developed a method called ‘bootstrapping’ and argue that the way sampling variance is calculated needs to reflect how surveys were designed and implemented. 








Social Research Issues: July update


British Social Attitudes Survey – latest findings

The latest  report of the British Social Attitudes Survey exposes new divides in attitudes to politics, gender, work, welfare and climate change – but also discovers areas of unexpected unity and agreement. The survey received a large amount of press coverage and reports that the British public are not as worried about major global challenges, including climate change, as the experts. 

Age and education are found to be strongly associated with attitudes to a range of issues covered in the report, including Brexit and immigration, though on some issues such as same sex relationships and the role of women, the differences in attitudes between different groups in society are narrowing. 

Educational Inequality Worsening

Recent research found the school system to have become less equitable since 2010, with higher-performing schools admitting relatively fewer disadvantaged pupils. The report, undertaken by the Institute of Education and funded by the Nuffield Foundation involved case studies from 47 schools, a survey of almost 700 head teachers, analysis of Ofsted results over a 10 year period and evaluation of the impact of Multi-Academy Trusts on pupil attainment and progress. The research also uncovers a gap between rhetoric and reality with the government policy aim of ‘moving control to the frontline’. 

21st Century Grandparents

A number of changes in society mean that grandparents are playing an ever increasing role in raising the next generation and a special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Social Science contains articles from the expanding body of interdisciplinary research on the subject. Issues covered include: How is grandparenting different from parenting? How do lineage, gender or marital status influence the role played? How does grandparental involvement affect the well-being of children?

Serious organised crime with deep roots in specific geographical areas

A study funded by the Scottish government examines serious organised crime (SOC) with deep roots in specific areas, concluding that SOC is rooted in deep and enduring forms of harm and exploitation at the community level.


Linking Survey Data to Information on Social Media?

The Understanding Society Innovation Panel (IP) is used as a test-bed for experimental ways of collecting data and developing new research areas. A recent paper sets out the results of wave 10 and includes a very interesting project (f) on the feasibility of linking survey information with data on twitter. The potential benefits of doing this include enhancing the richness of survey data and improving adjustments for non response bias. However, a range of methodological and ethical challenges need to be addressed through further work and testing.  

Evaluating Survey Quality

A recent document from the American Association of Public Opinion Research sets out  the types of information survey practitioners and end users need in order to assess the quality and reliability of survey data.  It  is intentionally non-technical and is organised around a number of high level headings: transparency; coverage; sampling; non response; measurement and ‘other factors’ including reputation of organisation carrying out the research. Under each heading a number of pertinent questions are posed in order to tease out what is really important when assessing quality.

Evaluating programmes aimed at reducing youth re-offending

The Youth Justice Cohort provided free evaluation support to eleven organisations seeking to improve their ability to evaluate programmes aimed at reducing youth re-offending, or helping young people exit gangs.  Read about the lessons addressed throughout the cohort and about the outstanding challenges.


Commons report on Research Integrity published

A report from the Commons S&T committee acknowledges that the vast majority of research undertaken in the UK is of high quality and high integrity. However, whilst all of the most research intensive universities are complying with key recommendations  of the 2012 concordat on research integrity, as many as a quarter of universities overall are not fulfilling the basic recommendation of producing an annual report on research integrity. The committee calls for a new committee to be set up to champion research integrity and  drive the future implementation of a tightened concordat.  In commenting on the report James Wilsdon has called for the system of oversight to be ‘light touch and trust-based’. 

Does high quality research have more impact?

An interesting blog uses data mining techniques to plot whether achieving research impact comes at the expense of the quality of research. The overall findings, with some caveats, reassuringly suggest that the opposite is true and that quality research is more likely to have impact.

Use of Evidence Frameworks in Social Policy

The Alliance for Useful Evidence has mapped out 18 ‘Standards of Evidence Frameworks’ and similar documents currently in use across different areas of social policy. The paper goes on to discuss the pros and cons of introducing more standardisation into frameworks.

Citizen Deliberations in Policy Development

The Sustainable Communities Act (2007) sought to integrate the results of various locally organized citizen deliberations within the policy development processes of central UK government. A newly available journal article examines the achievements and failures of the processes as well as fundamental obstacles to do with broader contextual factors.


























Social Research news update June 2018



Social Science Graduates need Quantitative Skills

A recent report from the Campaign for Social Science notes that although social science graduates are doing well, graduates with data and numeracy skills tend to earn more.  Looking to the future, the report concludes that graduates will need to engage increasingly with the growing demand for number and data skills, and successfully deploy these alongside their critical analysis and writing skills, if the buoyancy in their employment prospects is to continue. 

How Government can work more with academia?

A new report from the Institute for Government draws on interviews carried out in 10 Departments to explore how Whitehall can make better use of evidence. Whilst the Institute found many examples of good practice, too often the use of academic evidence and expertise in forming policy appeared inconsistent and ad hoc. The report calls for significant improvements, including greater clarity about who is responsible for bringing in experts. It also makes a strong plea for Whitehall departments to learn from each other.  

It should be noted that the scale of the fieldwork was fairly limited and it would have been useful to explore the views of different players within departments as well as the perspective of those responsible for supplying evidence, including academics. 

New Geographical Classification system launched

The House of Commons library has developed a new geographical classification system that aims to further our understanding of differences, trends, inequalities and patterns of data across different areas of GB. It is based on the size of settlements people live in and will enable analysis of key questions such as how are towns faring compared with cities? Settlements are classified into one of six types as follows: 12 core cities; 24 other cities; 119 larger towns; 270 medium towns; 674 small towns and 6,116 villages and small communities. There is a spreadsheet in the downloads section that breaks down constituencies, local authorities and output areas using the new classification system.

ESRC Celebrating Impact Awards

Winners of the 2018 ESRC Celebrating Impact awards were announced at a ceremony held on 20 June. Emma Renold of Cardiff University won the Outstanding Impact in Society prize for research that has transformed relationships and sexuality education in Wales. The overall Impact Champion award was awarded to Matthew Flinders of the University of Sheffield whose mission has been to help UK social science researchers reach out beyond academia.

Brexit developments

New EU proposals for a successor to Horizon 2020 offer hope to those seeking UK participation in EU research programmes after Brexit. However, much will depend on how much funding the UK is willing to make in the future, which will depend, in part at least, on how much influence the UK is able to retain over decision making (the PM wants ‘a suitable level of influence’).

Cross Disciplinary Research Funds

Competitions for cross disciplinary challenges set out under the UKRI’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund are now starting to emerge. There are big opportunities for social scientists under a number of the themes, including ‘Healthy Ageing’, but deadlines for competitions are likely to be tight so keep an eye on the UKRI website.

UK What Works Centre for Meta-Research?

In an interesting piece, James Wilsdon welcomes the UKRI commitment to create an evidence-informed “culture of evaluation” at the heart of the organisation. Worldwide, the field of ‘research on research’, or meta-research, is advancing rapidly and James calls for the setting up of a ‘What Works Centre for Meta-Research’ in the UK.


Research Findings

Children from poorer backgrounds miss out on free pre school places

Participation in pre school education can help boost the life chances of children, particularly those from deprived backgrounds. Recent research by the LSE is highly relevant because it found children from poorer backgrounds to be significantly less likely to take up free places in pre-school education compared to their higher-income peers. The gap in take up between disadvantaged  and higher income families was highest in areas of the country where early years provision is mostly in the private sector. In contrast, in areas with more sure start centres or school nurseries that do not charge parents additional fees for ‘extras’,  the gap in take up between different types of families was relatively narrow. 

Old Age : a positive experience for some?

Analysis of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing is somewhat at odds with the everyday fears that ageing is associated with ill-health, loneliness and poverty. As many as six in ten older people feel that ageing has been a positive experience, though relatively wealthy older people are much more likely to report ageing as a positive experience compared with their poorer contemporaries.




Social Research News: May update


Review recommends further investment in ESRC Longitudinal Studies

The independent review of longitudinal studies has concluded that the ESRC should continue to fund its world-leading social science longitudinal studies. It concludes that the studies provide us with unrivalled information and insights into the lives of the UK population, with data that stretch over 60 years. Moreover, it is recognised that the data are particularly powerful when used in conjunction with administrative data records. 

The review also concludes that whilst the studies are internationally excellent, more investment is needed to secure the UK’s position as a global leader in the provision of social science data. It also highlights the need to better demonstrate the academic and societal impact of these data sets. How to achieve this is likely to be a focus of debate over the coming months. 

Social Science Careers – why data and number skills matter

The Campaign for Social Science (CfSS) is launching a new report on 8 June highlighting the importance of number and data skills for those studying social sciences. 

Almost four in ten undergraduates are studying one of the social sciences and the report looks at where they go to work, how their employment and earnings compare to those who graduate from other disciplines, and what makes a difference to their employment chances. One clear theme to emerge is that having number and data skills is likely to give individuals of every discipline, including the social sciences, a wider range of choices about work. It also means they are likely to earn more.

Indices of Multiple Deprivation update 2019 (‘IoD2019’)
Work has begun on updating the 2015 indices of deprivation with publication scheduled for summer next year. The work will be undertaken by OCSI and Deprivation.Org, featuring the same key personnel who have been responsible for developing the conceptual model and methodology for measuring small area deprivation utilised in all the English Indices of Deprivation since 2000. The update will retain and replicate the model of multiple deprivation used in 2015. We will endeavour to keep SRA members informed of progress.

Improving the Indicators of ‘Economic Performance’

A discussion paper from IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice highlights a need for  significant improvements in the measurement of key economic statistics, including better  local and regional data. The report also proposes five new indicators of economic outcomes that would aim to reveal how broadly the economy distributes its rewards, whether it is succeeding at reducing poverty, whether people feel satisfied with their lives and progress in moving to an environmentally sustainable model of growth.

Hopes for an early UK-EU deal on science evaporate

The government response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on Brexit and Science is widely regarded as being vague and disappointing. Whilst it makes warm noises about UK participation in EU science programmes, the government is refusing to commit to a clear timeline for agreeing a deal by October.  In response to a further recommendation from the committee, the government says it has no plans to bring forward the date for release of the recommendations of the Migration Advisory Committee (due in September) on plans for retaining EU scientists after Brexit. In response the S&T committee has decided to develop its own proposals for immigration and visa rules for scientists and has issued a call for submissions (deadline 6 June). 

Ethics and Integrity Framework under development

The European Science Foundation, in conjunction with other bodies, is to run a EU funded 2.8 million euro project aimed at building a ‘Research Ethics and Integrity Framework’ for all non-medical research. The main tasks will be ‘to gather all relevant work, consult with the right stakeholders, extract the common threads and synthesise to a coherent and easy to understand whole’. The commission is keen to stress that the intention is not to seek to re-invent the wheel given that many codes already exist. 

Implementing the New Code of Practice on Statistics

The new UK Statistics Authority Code of Practice for Statistics aims to reflect the changing environment of statistics and the growing interest in how they are used in public discussions. It is underpinned by three pillars : Trustworthiness, Quality and Value. An event was held earlier this month to discuss the issues being experienced by organisations in the process of voluntarily adopting the  code.


A recent report commissioned by the Sutton Trust reviews the current state of ‘early years’ policy in light of the evidence about what works. The picture to emerge is mixed. Significant policy effort and funding has been targeted at early education and childcare, but the report highlights a number of worrying indications, including a shift away from quality provision aimed at furthering the development of poorer children towards support to help working families with childcare. The report contains a number of policy recommendations. 

Current housing systems, and the linked welfare systems, respond poorly to life events such as relationship breakdown and the onset of poor health according to a series of reports commissioned by JRF.  Social rented housing, at its best, was found to provide a secure tenancy in decent housing at an affordable rent, but its potential can be undermined by a number of factors.  Furthermore, those on low incomes who are only able to access the lower end of the private rented sector encounter a series of problems, including high housing costs, poor quality housing and/or the precariousness of tenancies.

Back in 1969 about 10,000 of the then eleven year old participants in the NCDS (covering children born in one week in 1958) were asked to write an essay with the title ‘Imagine you are 25’. Almost 50 years later researchers contacted some of the respondents to see if they had fulfilled their childhood dreams. A team of researchers are now analysing all the essays to examine whether the language used by participants may have predicted how life would turn out for them. We will report the results in due course. You can also download information about the age 11 essays via the UK data service.


‘Six Rules of Thumb for Determining Sample Size and Statistical Power’ is a very clear tool describing some of the factors that affect statistical power and sample size.

Does having a mis-match between the wording of survey questions and the response options available (e.g. open ended questions with closed-ended response options) impact on data quality?  A recent trial involving postal and telephone methods concluded that  it does and suggests that researchers should aim for a ‘holistic design’.