"ECDP and Social Science Research Infrastructure strategy" by Gary Pollock, ECDP project coordinator


The European Cohort Development Project (ECDP) is developing a new social science Research Infrastructure (RI) called EuroCohort. This will be Europe’s first comparative birth cohort survey and will be an important source of evidence in developing social policies for children, young people and families across Europe for many years to come. To do this we need to succeed on two broad fronts. Firstly, we need a research design which is both scientifically excellent and which can be operationally delivered. Secondly, we need to convince key stakeholders at national and European levels that there is a need for such a survey.    

What is a social science RI?

The classic model of an RI is an extremely expensive piece of equipment that requires the pooling of resources from different organisations and/or countries for it to come in to being.  Perhaps the best example of this is the Large Hadron Collider at Cern which benefits from substantial funding from many countries, providing their scientists with a facility that would otherwise be impossible to create.  Not all RIs, however, are big shiny machines.  The first time I heard the suggestion that social scientists should also benefit from ‘large scale facilities’ was when listening to Gaston Schaber describe the Panel Comparability project at a training course in Luxembourg during 1996.

Schaber’s vision was premised on the need for both comparative and longitudinal survey data to be able to fully understand and therefore be able to improve European society.  Schaber was a passionate European and the importance of Europe working together to solve social problems was one way of reducing the likelihood of conflict.  Since that project there have been significant advances in developing pan European surveys, the scale of which renders them research infrastructures. The Survey of Health Ageing and Retirement, European Social Survey, and the Gender and Generations Programme are all living examples which demonstrate that society benefits from taking an infrastructural approach to the collection of survey data. 


For EuroCohort to become a reality we need to convince policy makers, politicians and funders that this investment will be worthwhile in terms of contributing to a better understanding of social processes across Europe and, therefore, better policy innovation to tackle social issues.  While a Europe wide cohort survey operating for, say, 25 years will not be cheap, our work in the MYWeB project suggested that it would be a drop in the ocean compared to current expenditure on children, young people and families.  In other words, better policies and more targeted expenditure on the basis of high quality data means that such a survey would quickly pay for itself.

The ESRC Longitudinal Studies Strategic Review asserts the ongoing need for high quality longitudinal data but also stresses the importance of internationally comparable longitudinal data to be able to undertake cross-national analysis of phenomena in an increasingly globalised world.

“Various topics of cross-national interest were mentioned, for example:

  • Comparing life-course trajectories to better understand how policy and circumstances affect wellbeing, health, development and other outcomes
  • Comparing migrants’ experiences in different countries to identify factors that foster successful integration
  • Comparative historical analysis on areas such as income mobility
  • Socio-economic issues such as savings practices or attitudes toward redistribution
  • Political research topics such as attitudes regarding the law
  • Specific health behaviour issues such as child obesity to assess the impact of policies
  • Generic issues would profit from larger sample sizes by pooling samples.” page 26

The report then quotes the view of The Royal Statistical Society that “the proliferation of cohort studies around the world lacks a methodology to make sense of comparative analyses, and they recommend that ESRC and UK researchers should lead development work in this area. ” page 26

Infrastructure Strategies

Across Europe there are RIs in most academic disciplines.  Within the EU these are organised within the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI). In September 2018 the new ESFRI roadmap will be published.  This report, an update of the 2016 roadmap, details existing RIs funded by the EU as well as identifying potential new RIs. This roadmap is periodically updated with the next refresh due in 2020.  Our aim is that EuroCohort will be included on the 2020 ESFRI roadmap.  

Within the ESFRI process each Member State has the opportunity to develop their own National RI roadmap. The UK, for example, is currently undertaking a review of RIs and is asking existing and prospective RIs to contribute.  ECDP has made a submission.  A number of other national reports are likely to feed into this process as RIs are a priority area for UK research see for example the Royal Society snapshot of UK RIs and the UKRI strategic prospectus.

Within the ECDP consortium, we feel that we are ideally placed to rise to the challenges of developing an ambitious comparative cohort survey.  We have the expertise, the drive and the support of the European Union.