Researchers are set to test approaches to setting up a major new UK-wide study that will follow babies born in the 2020s over many decades to understand how societal circumstances and events affect them. A £3 million investment, made by the Economic and Social Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation, will allow researchers to develop a two-year-long birth cohort feasibility study.
This study will develop and test the design, methodology and viability of a full-scale Early Life Cohort Study that is likely to follow participants for more than 70 years, starting from 2024.
Experts from within Population Data Science at Swansea University Medical School will form part of the Scientific Leadership and Delivery Team of this important UK-wide study. Swansea University’s Professor Kerina Jones and Dr Lucy Griffiths will lead on sampling and stakeholder engagement in Wales and ensure that data relating to births, childhood and beyond, from the Welsh population, are accurately represented within the UK cohort.
Dr Lucy Griffiths, member of the Scientific Leadership and Delivery Team, involved with sampling the Welsh cohort and stakeholder engagement activities said:
“This study is important given that Welsh families have historically found themselves in socio-economic uncertainties and are now faced with additional challenges and concerns following the pandemic and Brexit. I hope we can demonstrate the feasibility and value of a new contemporary birth cohort study to understand the lives and circumstances of children born in the 2020s across Wales, and the UK more broadly.”
The Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study will be led by Professor Alissa Goodman, and Professor Lisa Calderwood of UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, and Professor Pasco Fearon of UCL Psychology & Language Sciences. The study team includes researchers from the universities of Swansea, Edinburgh, Ulster, Queen’s University Belfast, and Manchester Metropolitan.
In this early pilot phase, SAIL Databank is being considered as a means to help with recruitment to the study and to potentially provide data linkage across different data sources. These data, when used together with similar data from across the UK, will help to understand how children born in the 2020s are affected by the circumstances in which they grow up. These could include household structure, parents’ economic status and, in later waves of the study, children’s peer groups and experience of schooling. Circumstances such as these have been affected profoundly by major societal changes and events since the turn of the century.
Prof Kerina Jones, member of the Scientific Leadership and Delivery Team, involved in public and stakeholder engagement activities said:
“In light of recent political events, the pandemic and rapid societal changes, this is an ideal time for the beginning of a new birth cohort across the UK. It is being designed with opportunities for members of the public and a wide range of stakeholders to input into the development and course of the study to help ensure it addresses the needs of new lives in the devolved administrations. As such, it is of particular value to us in Wales.”
Birth cohort studies involve repeated surveys of thousands of individuals – who were all born at around the same time – from early childhood and throughout their lives. They provide data to help researchers understand the lives of different generations of children as they grow up, and to link experiences in childhood to experiences and outcomes throughout the rest of their lives. Findings from these studies have influenced public policy in many ways.
In one example, researchers used data from the Millennium Cohort Study to show that 16% of all 14-year-olds in the UK in 2015 suffered from mental ill-health. These findings highlighted for the first time the extent of mental ill-health among young people at a national level, prompting new government policy and strategies for improving young people’s mental health.
Co-director of the study and director of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Professor Alissa Goodman, said:
“This feasibility study will provide vital information about babies being born across the UK, at a critical time for our society and economy, providing new evidence on the factors that affect development in the first year of life.”
“We’ll use a range of approaches and technologies to gather the experiences of participants from all walks of life, including those from typically under-represented groups. The data we collect will not only give us detailed insight into the lives of a new generation but, we hope, will pave the way for a full new birth cohort study in time.
“We are looking forward to playing our part in strengthening the UK’s reputation as world leaders in running birth cohort studies.”
Since the 1940s, the UK has developed a world-leading series of birth cohort studies. UKRI’s portfolio includes studies that have followed the lives of large cohorts of people born roughly a generation apart, in 1946, 1958, 1970, 1989-90 and 1990-1, and 2000-2. These studies collect data that provides a valuable research resource for scientists, practitioners, and policymakers from across the world and continue to enable world-leading research with considerable scientific and practical impact.
In another example of the benefits of birth cohort studies, researchers have shown that summer-born children are disadvantaged by the school admissions system. Researchers have also used birth cohort studies to reveal the lasting impacts of childhood obesity, which may persist into later life.
Significant developments in digital technology over the last two decades provide new opportunities for data collection in a new early life cohort study. Data could be collected via smartphones, participants could be videoed during interviews, and datasets can be linked. The Feasibility Study will test these and other approaches.
Parents of babies will be selected from across the UK to be invited to participate in the study, ensuring it is inclusive and representative of children being born.
ESRC’s commissioning of the study was guided by an independent public dialogue exercise led by the University of Warwick. Further public engagement will occur as part of the feasibility study.
The study is expected to run from 2021 until 2023.