It feels so much more than five weeks since our CEO, Tim Gardam posed the question: ‘How should the Nuffield Foundation research community respond to the social implications of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic?’.
In mid-March, as we closed the door on our London office, and built workstations in our spare rooms and on our kitchen tables, it was clear that the coming period would be one of unprecedented societal change. As an independent charitable trust, with a mission to advance educational opportunity and social well-being, we were able to manoeuvre rapidly to support research into the social implications of the pandemic. The response from the social science community was impressive; within two weeks we received over 100 outlines.
Expressions of interest came from across the world and on a myriad of aspects relating to the pandemic. We prioritised those that focussed on the wider social significance of the pandemic and which would gather evidence in real time. We wanted to support projects that could get underway rapidly and those most likely to benefit society by informing the public policy response.
Six weeks later, we are delighted to announce Nuffield Foundation funding for seven projects. Reassuringly, they are all asking questions which resonate with discussion in the media and in conversations with friends and families. What is the impact on people’s income? What news channels are we relying on for our information? Is cohesion in our communities being helped or hindered? How are educational outcomes being affected? Are government measures in response to the crisis ‘fair’ and what do they mean for our rights and duties? How is our mental health being affected by isolation? How are relationships between generations changing? Crucially all seven projects will continue to gather data on how we respond when lockdown is finally relaxed.
A common theme is consideration of those who are most affected by COVID-19. Although the pandemic has touched everyone, its effect is not equally felt, with large numbers of households experiencing significant economic, and emotional, shocks. Among our projects Ruth Patrick will focus on families living in poverty, the support they receive from the benefit system during this period, and the challenges they face in navigating the crisis. Daisy Fancourt, capturing survey responses from over 50,000 people each week on how mental and physical health, loneliness and isolation, are impacted, will go on to interview people with a long-term physical health condition, a mental health condition, older people, front-line healthcare workers, and other key workers. Laurie Day will follow the lives of a group of 14-18 year olds within the UK, and internationally in Italy, Singapore and Lebanon, whose expected transitions to further study, training and jobs, have been disrupted by the crisis, to understand how they are responding.
Reflecting their diverse questions, project methods differ, and there are examples of real innovation. Rasmus Nielsen will survey a panel of people each fortnight to see how their trusted sources of information evolve, as well as sending them short bursts of questions at pivotal points in the development of the pandemic. Sarah Cattan will survey families early and late in the summer term to explore their changing economic circumstances, time-use, and well-being, and with all permissions in place, she will link to the National Pupil Database to track impact on their children’s achievement, attendance and exclusions. Ruth Patrick will draw on Child Poverty Action Group’s ‘Early Warning System’ to monitor issues that families are raising with welfare benefit advisers.
All projects have plans in place to work quickly to disseminate their learning and to give voice to the experiences and issues people have shared. In fact, early results from Daisy Fancourt’s project are already available and Rasmus Nielsen will publish his initial findings imminently. We will do all we can to amplify these and draw complementary findings together in order to streamline connections to policy makers.
These seven projects are just the start of how the Foundation will take account of the social impact of the virus. Many of our existing grant-holders will adapt their projects to consider the short- and longer-term impacts of the pandemic. We are also encouraging applications to our Research, Development and Analysis Fund to address the emerging social challenges and consider the potential interventions that may alleviate them.
We now know that the pandemic is likely to impact on all aspects of societal well-being for years to come, and we aim to play an important role in supporting the social science community’s response.
About the author
Catherine joined the Nuffield Foundation’s Welfare team in early 2019, contributing to the development, and management of the grants portfolio. She leads on our digital society grants and manages our Oliver Bird programme of research relating to the impact of musculoskeletal conditions on wider well-being. She has co-ordinated the COVID-19 rapid response call.
Prior to joining the Nuffield Foundation, Catherine managed Research and Policy teams with the sight loss charity RNIB. Previously she worked in the Department of Health as Research Manager with the Children and Young People’s Public Health and Teenage Pregnancy policy teams.