Embracing innovation and change in research methods

We aspire to be innovative in what we do, using the best methods to improve what we can offer at competitive prices.

For over 50 years, the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) has been a leader in the delivery of social research evidence to government departments, academics, think tanks, charities and other research organisations. We recognise that our customers are looking for high quality data which will help them to understand the reality of people’s lives, to inform policy decisions, and to develop and improve services to the public. 

To ensure that our customers have confidence in the evidence we produce, we carefully consider the methods we use to collect and analyse data. It is important that we select methods that optimise quality within the constraints of cost and time, while still delivering data that is fit for purpose. To achieve this, we employ a range of research methodologies, including survey methods, qualitative research methods, mixed methods, evaluation research, deliberative research, statistics, and data analysis. Each method is carefully selected based on the nature of the research and the specific requirements of our customers.

Over recent years, we have observed significant changes in the requirements from our customers. There is growing awareness that data and evidence needs to be more inclusive, ensuring “that everyone in society counts and is counted and no one is left behind.”[1] Our customers are also looking for more granular statistics in terms of geography (e.g. sub-national estimates), socio-demographics (e.g. more precise breakdowns of age, gender and disability) and time (e.g. quarterly rather than annual estimates). We also appreciate that research budgets are under pressure meaning that our customers are often requiring more for less money and faster. We aim to meet these requirements by enhancing our existing methodologies, developing new methods, using new data sources, and adopting new processes and technologies.

In our strategy, Making Life Better: Having impact through social research, which sets out the vision, future direction and our ambitions for the 2020s, we aspire to be innovative in what we do, using the best methods to improve what we can offer at competitive prices. For example, we are increasingly using online data collection methods in our quantitative and qualitative research in a bid to reduce costs and improve timeliness; a trend which accelerated following the COVID-19 pandemic. Linking survey data to external sources such as administrative records, smart data and transactional data, also has the potential to produce data that are more granular and inclusive. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will revolutionise how we collect and analyse data, and we are exploring how we can best utilise this tool to meet our customer requirements in a more cost-effective way. 

However, while these new methods and data sources have their strengths, there are challenges that need to be understood and addressed such as concerns around representation, measurement, access, transparency, consent, privacy and data protection. 

Our customers can trust NatCen to be clear and transparent about the benefits and costs of using different methods, bearing in mind the purpose of data collection and how they want to use the data. We work closely with our customers to ensure that the most appropriate methodology is adopted. Ultimately, our goal is to ensure that you can be confident that the evidence is robust and can stand up to scrutiny. By upholding the highest standards of social research methodology, we believe passionately that social research has the power to make life better.