The fate of the hugely valuable birth cohort studies will tell us a lot about this government's true intentions
'Our whole way of life" will be affected, "every single person", "perhaps for decades to come", David Cameron warned today yesterday. The message was apocalyptic: everything is "even worse than we thought". The cuts, he said, will be "open, responsible and fair", the pain fairly distributed; but how will that fairness be measured? We will need to know exactly where the burden has fallen, and at what social cost into the far future.
Those who have studied the early 1980s recession fear a similar great spike in inequality. Margaret Thatcher, cutting deep into a recession, caused poverty to shoot up from one in seven children to one in three in just a couple of years; it was never to fall significantly again. Labour promised to repair that damage but only reversed a fraction of the harm done. Is it about to happen again in a country that is already among the most unequal in the developed world? If so, how will we measure the deep social effects that may last a lifetime for some?
Studying ourselves is something the British do exceptionally well. Social scientists, geneticists, psychologists, demographers, medical researchers and epidemiologists flock to the country from all over the world, seeking answers to fundamental human questions from Britain's unique series of birth cohort studies.
No one else has anything like them. Thousands of babies born within a few months of each other have been studied throughout their entire lives: the first cohort was in 1946, the next in 1958, then 1970. Their parents, their families, their health, their progress in school, their relationships and their careers – all are still monitored regularly.
The wealth of information is remarkable, now the oldest are in their 60s. But after 1970 there was a 30-year hiatus, leaving a gaping hole in the social and medical histories of a lost generation. The survey planned for the 1980s was cancelled by a Conservative government which despised social science – and perhaps would rather not know the social results of its own policies.
Labour arrived in 1997, keen to gather research on all aspects of policy and eager to commission a new millennium birth cohort to track the progress of Labour's babies.
In the early days, ministers thirsted to know what worked and why with "evidence-based" policies, conducting pilots to spread best practice once it was proved. Did it work out that way? Both the academic researchers and the politicians soon realised they inhabited different time zones. By the time research was done, the minister had long moved on and the department had new priorities. In politics, eye-catching initiatives too often trump evidence. Gigantic spending decisions were taken on drugs, prisons, policing, faith schools, foundation hospitals or academies unconnected to evidence, using ministerial gut instinct, ideology or conviction. Britain may be good at analysing its social problems, but it is rather less good at policies that follow where the research leads.
How seriously will the coalition government take evidence? The next birth cohort study was at the top of the pile for signature on the chief secretary's desk the day parliament was dissolved.
Due to survey 93,000 babies born in 2012, this is the most detailed so far, collecting the strongest evidence yet on the first year of life. Mothers will be surveyed six months into pregnancy, then when their baby is four months and 12 months old, trying to find the earliest causes for effects later in life. Saliva samples will be taken, along with umbilical cord and placenta. Parents and children will be videoed. Every possible social, psychological and medical fact will be recorded, looking for the origins of attention deficit disorders, autism and mental illness. The material will be there for future studies decades ahead, looking back for infant signs of dysfunctions that develop later in life.
But the survey's fate hangs by a thread, waiting on David Willetts' desk in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, needing £28m to go ahead. Willetts is the best possible minister to be making this decision. An avid user of social research in his own writings, he knows the value of these cohort studies. 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?
This government arrives with a record of interest in social research. Iain Duncan Smith, Oliver Letwin and David Cameron use tracts of facts on social mobility and the causes of poverty. Commissioning Frank Field to review poverty statistics and children's life chances suggests it still interests them in office. Cameron makes a point of distancing himself from Thatcher's denial that such things matter. So will they commission the birth cohort, or will they again break the historical record?
Not only this study but valuable work in the independent Office for National Statistics also hangs in the balance: the ONS faces a 20% cut and a return to its market role in the Thatcher years – only producing statistics specifically requested and paid for by a department. What will happen to annual figures that please no department? The households below average income figures record the numbers of the poor each year. The annual social trends report covers myriad vital areas. The family expenditure survey reveals information of immense value, but would a minister pay for it? Will the Home Office buy the British crime survey? Some precious things only the state can do: philanthropists don't sponsor social research.
The millennium babies are Blair's boomers, the 2012 babies will be Cameron's austerity infants. The question 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.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016