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Researchers pilot plans for new national birth cohort study

Researchers are set to test innovative approaches to 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.

The Early Life Cohort Feasibility Study will be led by UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies and includes researchers from the universities of Queen's University Belfast, Swansea, Edinburgh, Ulster and Manchester Metropolitan.

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.

Professor Dermot O'Reilly researcher on the study from the Centre for Public Health at Queen's University Belfast, said: "The children and young people are the future of NI. This new UK-wide research project will follow babies born in the 2020s over many decades to understand how societal circumstances and events affect them.

"It is a wonderful opportunity to further our understanding of how children develop and mature and help to shape our environments and policies so that all children will have the best start in life and reach their true maximum potential in later years."

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.

The aim of a new Early Life Cohort Study is 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.

Such changes include the lasting effect of the 2007-8 financial crisis and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasingly complex family structures and dynamics, a changing world of work and education, the digital revolution, climate change, and changing health and mental health challenges, all create questions that new data is required to answer.

UK Research and Innovation Board member, Lord David Willetts, said: “As a member of UK Research and Innovation’s Board, I am delighted that the Economic and Social Research Council has made this important investment.

“UKRI already funds a world-leading portfolio of longitudinal studies in the social and medical sciences. Developing a new birth cohort study will make this portfolio even more valuable to understanding the challenges faced by children born in this decade, not least assessing the impact of the pandemic on their prospects.”

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.