OPINION9 June 2010

The value of social research

Polly Toynbee spoke out in defence of Britain’s birth cohort studies in the Guardian on Monday.

A new study planning to track the lives of 93,000 children born in 2012 has yet to be given the green light by the new government, and in the face of massive public spending cuts its fate hangs in the balance.

The wealth of information from past studies is remarkable, says Toynbee: “It was the 1958 study that revealed mothers who smoked have smaller, sicker babies. Comparison between children of 1946 and 1958 saw them grow longer legs, with better nutrition ironing out class differences. The millennium study gave the wake-up call on finding a quarter of children obese by four years old. Only cohort studies could have revealed the sudden slowdown in social mobility between those born in 1958 and those in 1970. Answers are here to all the perplexing questions: what makes some children resilient to dreadful early beginnings while others are damaged for life? How do you protect the vulnerable before it’s too late?”

But these longitudinal studies have not been used to their full potential because of changing governments with changing priorities. The question now, she says, is “whether this government wants to keep a good record of what happens on its watch. That, in itself, will reveal a great deal about their true intentions”.