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Maximizing the use and impact of the UK’s longitudinal research data

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 24 January 2023

Connections and networks between moving people in a busy train station.

Credit: alice_photo via Adobe Stock.

Rob Davies.

As CLOSER marks its 10-year anniversary, we’re looking back over the evolution of the home of longitudinal research in the UK.

The studies

The UK funds a number of internationally renowned longitudinal population studies (LPS). Each tracks a large sample of individuals over a number of years. In some cases they follow cohorts of around 17,000 born in the same year, from cradle to grave. In others, they follow a cohort for a shorter period, and the sample may be defined by age and/or, for instance, where these individuals live or work. The data this generates have been invaluable for analysing social as well as biomedical research questions and informing policy. The primary funders are the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC).

Each of the studies is powerful in itself, but the LPS community were more ambitious still, looking to amplify the insights they could provide by combining the data they generate.

A new approach

At the heart of the proposal was a bold vision for a new data discovery platform for researchers to see what data were available for analysis through these studies. The proposal also set out related resources and training opportunities, and innovative research projects to facilitate interdisciplinary research and cross-study analysis.

The bid was successful, and in 2012 CLOSER was born, short for ‘Cohort and Longitudinal Studies Enhancement Resources’.

So what is CLOSER?

CLOSER initially brought together eight studies, but that has since expanded to 19. This includes studies we often see cited in the media and policy reports, such as the Millennium Cohort Study, Born in Bradford, and Understanding Society: The UK Household Longitudinal Study.

Bringing together multiple studies, spanning several institutions and disciplinary fields is no small feat, however CLOSER Discovery now provides researchers with a single point of entry to the hundreds of thousands of variables in, to date, 11 of the 19 studies. The CLOSER website contains resources to augment cross-study analysis, but which will also be of more general interest in their own right. One example is ‘Our changing society’, a set of interactive graphs providing detailed information about the historical and political backdrop to study participants’ lives, including life expectancy and employment.

Researchers can also join our events and one of three Communities of Practice, established to facilitate collaboration within the LPS community: the CLOSER Longitudinal Communications Network, Data Linkage Working Group and Data Managers Network, encompassing representatives from CLOSER’s partner studies and many more beyond.

The CLOSER Learning Hub, complemented by an active programme of training and capacity building events, contains learning modules, animations, research case studies and teaching datasets. Used by thousands every month, among them researchers, students and policy analysts, it enables more people to use longitudinal data and make meaningful comparisons within and between studies.

Beyond the research community, CLOSER has been mobilising the evidence from longitudinal population studies and cross-study analysis in the policy landscape, across diverse topics from childhood obesity, to mental health and life chances.

Unprecedented times

By the opening months of 2020, “unprecedented times” had become a common-used phrase and the CLOSER team, like the rest of the scientific and wider community, pivoted to respond to a global pandemic.

We moved rapidly to ensure COVID-19 data from as many of our studies as possible were available to researchers in unprecedented detail.  Our training offer evolved alongside, to assist more researchers in utilising these data to study Covid’s impact.

We created the COVID-19 Longitudinal Research Hub, which established itself as a trusted source of information and insights across the research and policy landscapes. Our research tracker brought together all the Covid-related briefing notes, academic publications and articles using data from our studies in one place – with insights on topics from inequalities and Covid, to impacts on social cohesion, household finances, education, and mental health, among others.

Meanwhile, CLOSER’s work on data innovations and enhancements continued, with new cross-study guides on dietary dataphysical activity measures, and cognitive measures and harmonised datasets for use by the research community.

Where next for CLOSER?

As the possibilities for utilising research data grow, this is a fast-moving space. In many respects, CLOSER provides a benchmark for best practice.

CLOSER Discovery is viewed as the gold-standard in metadata management and the team regularly advises on similar activities around the world. Our resources and outputs are highly valued by both research and policy communities, particularly our evidence synthesis. CLOSER’s unique network, the team’s specialist expertise, and the reputation and trust we have built enable us to effect change across data, research, and policy communities.

However, none of this would be possible without our partners, our “jewel in the scientific crown” studies and the hundreds of thousands of study participants, whose contribution to science over many decades has demonstrably improved people’s lives.

With appropriate, consistent, long-term funding the opportunity for CLOSER to grow and scale up our activities is clear – watch this space!

Charting our first decade in numbers

Diagram showing key developments in CLOSER's history.

CLOSER’s first decade in numbers

Rob Davies is Head of Policy and Dialogue at CLOSER.

Read a longer version of this history – From CRF to CLOSER – charting the first 10-years of the home of longitudinal research on the CLOSER blog.

You can also sign up to CLOSER’s monthly newsletter Longitudinal News.

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