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COVID-19: a defining moment for longitudinal research?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 15 May 2020

Rob Davies, republished from the CLOSER blog.

It is clear the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for individuals, families and society will be deep and long-lasting. However, we still don’t fully understand the impact of the virus, nationally or regionally, or how it will entrench existing challenges such as inequalities or mental health.

Data and evidence from longitudinal studies will be vital to the UK’s response to COVID-19. Harnessing the power of existing longitudinal studies will help to understand the immediate and long-term impacts on individuals, families, households and society, providing valuable information for research and policy throughout and after the pandemic. Crucially, due to the unique nature of longitudinal studies, it will also be possible to track the longer-term consequences and impacts for years to come.

Rapid response with the future in mind

The response by the longitudinal research community to the COVID-19 pandemic has been rapid, extensive and impressive. New questionnaires have been launched for national and regional longitudinal study participants, some of which are already collecting data. These surveys will help to understand the health, social, economic and behavioural impacts of the pandemic at both a national and regional level, how people at different life stages are being affected, and how prior life experiences shape resilience or vulnerability to its effects.

There is a lot more happening at a national, regional, and international level. To capture and showcase this activity, including new research and emerging findings, we have set up the CLOSER COVID-19 Taskforce and will soon launch a new, online COVID-19 Longitudinal Research Hub. This Hub will act as an accessible resource for researchers and provide insights to parliamentarians and policy makers, now and in the future.

The pandemic poses huge challenges, both to the UK and across the world. Some of those challenges must be addressed with immediacy, but others will need a more considered, long-term response. Whilst an immediate reaction to the pandemic by the research community is needed, it is also important to ensure that the data and information collected can be used in the months and years to come. That’s why it’s so important for continued, representative, longitudinal data with good-quality metadata to enable comparisons across different populations.

Two lost decades – what will be the fate of Generation Corona?

For many years other countries have looked on in envy at the UK’s longitudinal studies. Internationally renowned, these important investments have provided key insights into our society, allowing researchers and policymakers to explore patterns of change and the dynamics of individual behaviour, the link between earlier life circumstances and later outcomes, how different areas of our lives are linked, and how those relationships change over time.

It is 20 years since the UK Millennium Cohort Study began collecting its first data. Created as part of the government’s plans to mark the millennium, it is the most recent of our national longitudinal birth cohort studies, following the lives of thousands of children born at the turn of the new century. This study, along with other UK longitudinal studies, have continued to prove their reputation as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of UK science and research. However, despite this enviable position, to this day a new, national birth cohort study has not yet been realised. This is a missed opportunity which urgently needs addressing. 

“Now it is the Government’s responsibility to build the public health and governmental infrastructure – across the entirety of the United Kingdom – that will protect the country for decades to come.” OUR PLAN TO REBUILD: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy, 11 May 2020

In this era of dramatic political, technological, societal and economic change only longitudinal data can provide insights about the dynamics of individual behaviour and the influence of earlier events and circumstances on later life outcomes. The UK’s studies are valuable assets, part of the UK’s scientific infrastructure, and in a position to provide a unique perspective on the impacts of this pandemic on individuals, families and our society. A new, national birth cohort study should be considered as part of our critical future infrastructure as the government looks to build new, long-term foundations for the country. This requires the foresight to act now, before it’s too late, to ensure that vital data from another generation is not lost.

Rob Davies is Head of the CLOSER COVID-19 Taskforce

Contact Rob: rob.davies@ucl.ac.uk, @r0bdavies

Image by mattthewafflecat from Pixabay

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One Response to “COVID-19: a defining moment for longitudinal research?”

  • 1
    Caleb W wrote on 15 May 2020:

    Out of curiosity, who’s on the new taskforce? Are more colleagues able to become involved? (Or does this risk turning into ‘the same people push to do more of the same things that they did before’?) Having existing expertise and people is great, but the risk is that new and fresh perspectives won’t be considered.

    Also, a new cohort study might be a great way to also facilitate and help lift up the next generations of academics as well – if only they could be involved!

    By the way, I thought that Life Study ( http://www.lifestudy.ac.uk ) was an attempt at something like a new cohort study, although it seemed to have recruitment trouble and was discontinued. Have lessons been learned from that?