These are indeed exceptional times and this is a rewarding moment to be working in social research. Certainly, there is no question about the importance and relevance of some of our NatCen research right now, whether we’re finding out how older people are coping during the pandemic, helping with the volumes on the Covid-19 infection study or taking part in the partnership evaluating the contact tracing app pilot on the Isle of Wight.
The research questions trip off the tongue during this period of adversity. Will Covid-19 change what the public expect of Government? Why are there different infection and death rates by sex and ethnicity? How’s our mental health being affected? Are children from disadvantaged backgrounds falling behind with schools closed? What’s going on at food banks?
Organisations have had to adapt quickly in the light of the pandemic, but we’ve found we can and are pleased with progress. Face-to-face fieldwork was paused abruptly in March and, at NatCen, we moved early to “furlough” relevant staff and interviewers to protect their jobs and re-enforce our financial security. Throughout this period, we’ve brought forward learning from existing projects and ongoing methodological research and investments. For example, we have 25 researchers trained (from June last year) in moderating online deliberation, providing core skills for online research they can now use in their projects. The demand for these services has not surprisingly grown during this Covid-19 period.
Social researchers have spent too long over the past decade debating whether administrative sources will replace surveys and whether “face-to-face” interviewing is better than “online” approaches, rather than exploring the best way to integrate sources and use the mixed mode models that we instinctively know are the future. Society’s shift to online interaction in response to the pandemic will undoubtedly shape how we conduct social research in the future. We should welcome that and “seize the day” - supporting members of the public who have less internet access or are less able to operate online. For example, for the first time, we’re using a mixed-mode web and computer assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) design for the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. A support telephone line will help this sample participate online, building our capability to do more online data collection for this study in years to come, not in place of face-to-face interaction but as part of an integrated and affordable model.
With so much at stake for politicians and the public currently, the response of research commissioners has been somewhat mixed - some increasing commissioning significantly, others stopping research programmes altogether. At a time of such opportunity for social researchers to inform policy making, and with new graduates shortly out of universities ready to find jobs, we need their funding as a community more than ever. We can do so much more to help the national effort…and yet…I’m not confident our commissioning models stand up to scrutiny in delivering the necessary speed and flexibility.
In the 1990s, during the years of John Major’s Government and when some ONS surveys were market tested, I wrote the first Government Statistical Service commissioning guidelines for surveys - a framework that was adopted then and has evolved over the years, some of it for the better but not all of it. The existing models tend not to produce the collaborative partnerships and responsiveness we envisaged then and don’t generally serve the research community well. In particular, the power balance between the researcher and the procurement specialist has shifted unhelpfully. There is an urgent need for a refresh to make commissioning fit for purpose - more flexible, less expensive and less bureaucratic. We’ve been talking about this for a few years now but actions speak louder than words.
Finally, but certainly not least, how have our staff coped? At NatCen, we’ve always said we could adopt flexible working practices and work at home if we needed to. I’m pleased to say we can, although there are tweaks we could usefully make. Recent investments in IT have helped and even I move relatively seamlessly between using Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams nowadays. The conditions currently are far from ideal though for people and they’re understandably anxious about the new coronavirus. Against that backdrop, I draw a lot of inspiration from our staff and their extraordinary resilience in doing what it takes to complete our research projects to the standards required.
Read more about our response to the challenges created by the lockdown and the studies we're conducting to measure the effects of Covid-19 here.