About gillianrsmith29

I have been editing (and writing) the Social Research Association's fortnightly e-newsletter for a number of years. Previous to this I worked for over 30 years as a government social researcher, including as the Head of Social Research at the UK Department for Transport. I have a real passion for ensuring research is taken seriously by decision makers.

Social Research Update: April


Lords report calls for stronger oversight of political polling on on-line political communications

The House of Lords select committee enquiry into ‘Political Polling and Digital Media’ chaired by Lord Lipsey has called on the polling industry to ‘get its house in order’ but has, ‘for the moment’, rejected the idea of banning polling in the run-up to elections. It calls for the British Polling Council to take a more proactive role in how it regulates polling and influences the reporting of polls, working with other regulatory bodies to call out bad practice, as necessary.

The Committee also raises deep concerns about the adverse influence of social media on political debate and calls on the government to undertake more research and to ‘ensure that the challenges posed by digital media are tackled as part of its Digital Charter’.

New Election Purdah rules welcomed
New guidance on the conduct of civil servants during the run up to the forthcoming local elections have been welcomed by the RSS and others following complaints that the previous rules were being used to restrict independent commentary at crucial points during elections and referendum. The new guidance seeks to clarify the issues by spelling out that the guidance is not about restricting commentary from independent sources e.g. academics. It goes on ‘is for individual public bodies to apply this pre-election guidance within their own organisations, but in doing so they should not go beyond the principles set out in this document.’
Rebuilding Trust around Data Collection

What are the implications of the Cambridge Analytica saga for public willingness to co-operate in research? Assurances about confidentiality are a key plank for ensuring informed consent, one of the basic pillars of conducting ethical research. A recent piece from Natcen suggests more dialogue with the public is needed in order to help them to understand the ethical standards that underpin the conduct of social research and data linking for research purposes.

Public acceptance of the Sharing of Health Data?
A small scale deliberative exercise involving citizens juries was carried out to better understand public attitudes to the complex issues surrounding the secondary use of health data for research purposes. It concluded that jurors became more positive about the sharing of health data as they became more informed and tended to the view that an individual’s right to privacy should not prevent research that can benefit the general public. However, a note of caution needs to be added as not all, jurors became less sceptical about health data sharing.

The Sociologists outside Academia group of the BSA represents and supports sociologists who are fully or partly situated outside of academic institutions. The starting point is that sociology is essential, not only for understanding the big problems that face society, but also the daily issues that need addressing at work, at home or in the community.  Part of their work programme involves developing a model curriculum in ‘Applied Sociology’ free to all UK universities to adapt as part of their sociology programme.

This years ‘Homelessness Monitor’ found the majority of local councils in England struggling to find any stable housing for homeless people in their area, leaving them forced to place more and more people in unstable temporary accommodation. There are 78,000 homeless households in England in temporary accommodation and, if current trends continue, the authors estimate that more than 100,000 such households will be trapped in temporary accommodation by 2020.

Joram Feitsma delves behind the rhetoric about ‘Nudge’ through an ethnographic study of ‘behaviour experts’ employed by the Dutch central government. She finds the everyday practice is complex and precarious as experts spend their time building networks, circulating knowledge, and translating abstract ideas into relevant tools.
Workplaces where employees had a strong ‘sense of belonging’ were better able to weather the 2008 recession in terms of maintaining organisational performance and employee wellbeing according to analysis of data from the Workplace Employment Relations survey.
A new report from the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights highlights a lack of progress to improve social and economic rights for people in GB across a number of areas, including social security, legal aid and work.


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.


Post 18 review – call for evidence
The independent panel supporting the Government’s Review of post-18 Education and Funding is inviting organisations and individuals to submit evidence on a number of questions including: how to support young people in making effective choices between academic, technical and vocational routes after 18; promoting a more dynamic market in education and training provision; ensuring the post-18 education system is accessible to all; supporting education outcomes that deliver the skills the UK needs and provides vfm. The deadline for responses is 2 May.



Does transport policy need to better reflect the changing economy?

Central Government Transport Policy in England and Wales is increasingly focused on supporting improvements in the transport infrastructure aimed at meeting the supposed needs of businesses to keep people and goods on the move. It is questionable whether this is the right focus given the changing nature of economic activity as well as wider changes in society and some fundamental questions need to be asked about what (and who) is transport for.

The UK Department for Transport website describes the overarching objective of the Department as being : ‘We work with our agencies and partners to support the transport network that helps the UK’s businesses and gets people and goods travelling around the country. We plan and invest in transport infrastructure to keep the UK on the move.’

The overall thrust of the objectives concern infrastructure improvements funded through capital spending and this is evident from looking at the detail of departmental spending; as noted by the NAO, since 2010 ‘capital spending’ on transport has increased disproportionately compared to ‘revenue spending’ which supports day to day bus services and measures to encourage walking and cycling, for example.

Policy decisions about infrastructure spending are underpinned by what economists call agglomeration theory. This is based on the idea that spending on transport infrastructure brings firms closer to each other and their customers (in travel time terms), which in turn yield improvements in the economic performance of individual areas, regions and the national economy.

In the UK Department for Transport the forecast ‘value of time savings’ are at the heart of the method used to appraise transport proposals and advise decision makers about the value for money of different options for transport spending. This approach has, of course, been subject to a great deal of criticism for at least two decades. The assumption that the time people spend travelling is of no economic value has attracted particular criticism and Professor Glenn Lyons, and others, have pointed to a growing body of empirical evidence to suggest that people often spend a good deal of time on productive tasks whilst travelling and that time spent travelling plays an important ‘transitional’ role.

A related issue which has been aired extensively over the years and is explored further in a report published last month – Banks, bytes and bikes: The transport priorities of the new economy.
This highlights how transport needs in urban areas are changing amid the growth of the so-called “flat white economy”. It shows how business sectors such as communications, media and information increasingly favour urban locations which are seen as ‘good places’ to live and work and provide good access on foot, by bike and by public transport. It challenges ‘monolithic views’ of what business want from transport policy in favour of a more nuanced perspective which recognises that there is a new economy with new perspectives on transport priorities, including a need to address wider objectives around public health, better air quality and the need to reduce carbon emissions.

In their conclusions the authors pose two key questions.

  • Is the right balance currently being struck in supporting the transport needs of the new economy compared with other sectors of the economy, including, for example, on appraisal of schemes which traditionally favour projects which reduce journey times between places rather than those schemes which contribute to improving the places themselves?
  • Do these new sectors of the economy need to find their voice to ensure that a more accurate and nuanced view of business priorities is reflected in wider transport policy making?

But how do we achieve such a shift?

It is clear from key policy documents, including DfT annual reports, that we are a long way from bringing these and other fundamental questions about what transport policy is for to the centre of transport policy making . Indeed, as we reach the 20th anniversary of the publication of John Prescott’s White Paper ‘ New Deal for Transport: better for everyone’, some might argue that we are further away from this that at any point over the last two decades’.

Moreover, I know full well from the ten years I spent working as Head of Social Research at the Department for Transport (DfT) just how difficult it is to inject new thinking and particularly anything that entails grappling with policy objectives that cut across the remit of several departments.

But is such pessimism justified? There are opportunities ahead, not least the challenges thrown up by Artificial Intelligence (AI). It is evident from the literature on autonomous vehicles commonly known as driverless cars/vehicles, that there are a huge range of diverging views about how quickly these will become commonplace on our roads. The optimist in me would argue that surely policy discussion around the options here must go beyond what is technically possible and bring questions about what is (and equally pertinently – who is) transport policy for, taking account of wider societal changes and changes in the economy to the fore?

A Healthy Nation?

A number of reports published last week raise questions about whether improvements in the nation’s health are starting to stall and pose some interesting questions about how far the changes observed are linked to public policy changes and levels of funding.

A report from the Nuffield Trust presents data on health and wellbeing for early childhood in the UK and 14 comparable countries, recognising the particular influence that a child’s development in this period can have on his or her future health and quality of life.

It concludes that whilst the UK is doing well on many of the indicators, in other respects progress has stalled or worsened over the past 2 – 3 years. This is true of childhood mortality, immunisation rates and low birth weight. And on life expectancy a girl born in the UK can expect to live to almost 83 years; three years less than a girl born in Spain, and the lowest of all European comparators. For both boys and girls, improvement in life expectancy has plateaued since 2011.

The author notes that these are the very indicators that are most susceptible to public health interventions and ‘therefore most at risk in the face of increasing threats to children’s (and particularly early years) services’.

Other research discussed on the ‘conversation’ website suggests that 12.4% more people died in the first seven weeks of 2018 than is usual for this time of year. Moreover, the first available data finds that flu only accounted for a very small part of the overall rise in mortality in early 2018, though it would be good to see more information about the data behind this claim.

The summary report also notes that on March 1, 2018, ONS announced that there had been noticeable falls in female life expectancy at birth in the 20% most deprived populations in England”. Also ‘it’s not just the poor who are affected. The rise in life expectancy for better-off groups of men and women had abruptly slowed compared with the 1890- 2010 norm’.

Indeed, the slowdown in life expectancy for the average person in Britain is worse than anything seen since the early 1890s, and no other country in Europe has witnessed a similar fall


Finally, the ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ research group published a report on the challenges that Brexit poses for the NHS and public health more generally. This was not picked up by the UK media preoccupied with other issues, but it paints a worrying picture.

Apart from funding pressures which are likely to be exacerbated, Brexit is also likely to worsen existing staff shortages. There has already been a fall in the number of EU-origin nurses, attributed at least in part to uncertainty about their future status. Longer term, the NHS and the social care sector are dependent on immigration but as yet unclear what this policy will be. ‘The risks, however, are evident’.

It is too early to say what degree of alignment will exist between the UK and the EU but there are numerous health systems and databases, such as the Clinical Trials Database and the Rapid Alert System for Blood and Blood Components (RAB) that will require specific agreements in order that the UK retain access.


Social Research News update March 2018

Some of the live issues, research findings, methodological developments and social research related consultations are briefly summarised in this planned monthly round up.


UK Research and Innovation – 20 days away

On 1 April the new UK Research and Innovation comes into being and will bring the nine UK research councils together under one umbrella. Whilst the individual councils will remain as separate bodies there is a great deal of nervousness within the social science community about the changes.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) winter 2018 edition of ‘Society Now contains a timely interview with Professor Jennifer Rubin, ESRC’s new Chief Executive. Jennifer sees one of her first priorities as being to make a success of the new arrangements. She says she wants the ESRC to be global in outlook. There is also likely to be a major push for inter-disciplinary research. Many will also be relieved to learn that Rubin also confirms a belief in the value of long-term research which “is not limited to one set agenda or one policy cycle.”

Refreshed Code of Practice for Statistics
The UK Statistics Authority has published a revised Code of Practice in order to reflect the changing environment of statistics and data more generally, and the growing interest in how statistics are used in public discussions.

It aims to provide users and producers with a set of principles that need to underpin independent statistics production and presentation in the new environment and is organised around three key pillars:

  • Trustworthiness – including independence, honesty and integrity,
  • Quality – including sound methods and assured quality,
  • Value – including relevance, clarity and insight.



Analysis of the ‘Children of the 90s project’ data concludes that the ‘locus of control’ of mothers (ie. a belief that their fate is in their own hands) is key to explaining children’s performance in GCSE exams, even after other factors influencing exam results, including mothers education, family background, and children’s IQ at aged 9 were held constant.

A recent paper from IPSOS MORI shows how expectations about the NHS have been managed downwards, meaning that although levels of satisfaction are falling, people’s expectations are more likely to have been met compared with 20 years ago, though pressure is mounting.

A project from the Fatherhood Institute found significant gaps and weaknesses in data available about fathers despite the potential importance of child – father relationships to explaining long term outcomes. The sixteen large-scale repeated cross-sectional and longitudinal studies investigated were found not to have kept up with today’s diversity of fathers and the final report makes a number of proposals for improvement.


A recent article from the Pew Research Center concludes that even the most effective adjustment procedures were unable to remove most of the bias in opt-in sample surveys. Moreover, very large sample sizes do not appear to fix the shortcomings of these surveys. The extensive testing revealed that choosing the right variables for weighting is crucial and for many of the topics examined the ‘right’ adjustment variables go beyond the standard set of core demographic variables.

Capturing a non-linear journey’ summarises a Project Oracle discussion about some of the challenges of applying a ‘Theory of Change’ approach to evaluation in the children and young people sector.

A series of three short video tutorials from NCRM cover the rationale and research design of community studies, methods used and the building up of a cumulative body of knowledge.


Consultation on 2021 Census outputs and dissemination channels
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has launched a consultation about their initial proposals for the design of Census 2021 outputs and dissemination channels for England &Wales.

Following feedback from users, ONS plan a number of improvements. These include greater flexibility in outputs through a web based interactive dissemination system, faster delivery of key statistics and the development of ‘enhanced census outputs’ eg. links with administrative data. As in 2011, ‘Output Areas’ and ‘Workplace Zones’ will be the building blocks for other census geographies and ONS propose to maintain as much stability in geographical boundaries over time as possible. The closing date for comments is 23 May


Is Britain less cohesive than other countries?

Levels of social cohesion in the UK are average, overall, compared with five other countries (the US, Germany, France, Japan, Sweden) and in some respects we appear to be most similar to Germany according to analysis carried out by Nuffield College.

Despite the pervasiveness of the idea of a ‘divided nation’ in the Brexit debate, the analysis suggests divides between liberal elites and more traditional non-elites are not a peculiarly British phenomenon.

Where the UK does stand out is that we are the least ‘pro immigration’ of the countries examined but, interestingly, we are no more divided on this issue than people living in the other countries studied.

But what does cohesion mean? It is of course a complex issue measured here along three dimensions

  • The cohesive forces that bind us together, namely shared values, norms and identities.
  • Divisive forces, such as public opinion on divisive issues such as immigration.
  • Opting-out of political and community life and live atomised lives with little recourse to other members of society

Developments across a number of nations, not least the issue of Brexit here the Uk, throw up a huge number of challenges for social cohesion in modern societies. This will be one of the themes I cover in subsequent blogs on this website.

Welcome to my website

Some of you will know me as I have been editing (and writing) the Social Research Association’s fortnightly e-newsletter for a number of years.  I previously worked for over 30 years as a government social researcher and have a passion for ensuring research is taken seriously by decision makers. Here is an interview covering my career history and high points as well as the inevitable lows http://the-sra.org.uk/my-career-gillian-smith/

This website will contain pieces of writing covering social research findings, ideas and my thoughts on issues of interest.

You can also follow me on twitter