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New report explores public views on using data for social research

Article dated: 29 April 2014

A new report suggests that the public have very low awareness and understanding of social research, and are sceptical about its value – but that when they learn more about its aims and methods, they tend to be more positive about it.

Public understanding and trust of social science research are critical in a world where new and expanding sources of public data hold rich research potential.

In late 2013, Ipsos MORI carried out a series of seven public dialogues across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to understand how people feel about government data being used for research. The work was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

In all, 136 members of the public were consulted at length in face-to-face workshops in London, King's Lynn, Manchester, Cardiff, Wrexham, Stirling and Belfast. Some key findings:

  • participants generally had very low initial awareness and understanding of social research, which initially drove scepticism about its value
  • as they learned more about the aims and methods of social research, they tended to be more positive about its value
  • theory-led research was generally less valued than research perceived as socially beneficial, however there was no clear or shared definition of 'socially beneficial'
  • in contrast with their low awareness of social research, participants were familiar with the importance of data to society; it is seen as an unavoidable part of modern life
  • nonetheless, keeping their personal data secure is important to them, and they felt they had little control over their personal data

The dialogues also focused on two specific uses of government administrative data:

  • the ESRC-funded Administrative Data Research Network, a newly established national resource in which the UK Data Service plays a coordinating role
  • the potential to use administrative data linking as an option for conducting the 2021 UK Census (alongside an annual survey)

The conversations produced some specific proposed principles and rules governing access to linked data. They also provided some guidance on how best to engage the public and inform them about these issues in the future.

The full report has been published on the Ipsos MORI website. ESRC and ONS are hosting a public seminar on 16 May 2014 to discuss the findings in detail. See below for more information about both.

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