Brussels, Nov 2003
The importance of the European Social Survey (ESS) lies not only in what it reveals about underlying social values across Europe, but also in its innovative organisational and funding framework, which can be regarded a good model for all collaborative research. Such were the conclusions reached at the closing session of the ESS launch conference, held on 25 and 26 November in Brussels.
Initiated by the European Science Foundation, the ESS is also funded by the European Commission's Fifth Framework Programme and national scientific funding bodies from 23 participating countries, including the 15 Member States and five accession and candidate countries. Most participants agreed with EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin's statement to the conference that the ESS is a 'concrete example of the European Research Area in action', given its blend of national and European level actors and funding.
Speaking from a funding agency's perspective, Eili Ervela-Myreen of the Academy of Finland said that this was the first time that such a large number of national funding bodies had worked so closely together on a project. Although problems arose from the fact that the various national agencies had different funding timetables, these difficulties had been largely overcome, she believed.
Ms Ervela-Myreen welcomed the fact that so many funding bodies got involved in the first three years of the project, although she warned against the tendency to fund a project during its pilot phase, and then reduce commitment in later years. To counter this danger, she echoed the speeches of many in calling for the ESS to be regarded as a research infrastructure, worthy of consistent funding.
Roger Jowell, professor of social science at City University, London, and Director of the ESS, said that the survey should be distinguished from opinion polls, which tend to focus on short term fluctuations in the public mood. The ESS has the more ambitious aim of producing rigorous trend data about changes in people's underlying values, he said. On the question of public funding, Mr Jowell commented: 'The European Social Survey is fiercely independent and is not there to serve the Commission's interests in any way, except insofar as good governance depends on access to reliable and good quality data.'
During the two day conference, ESS researchers presented some of the results of the first round of the survey, which are based on interviews with around 50,000 randomly selected respondents in 23 countries. These findings suggest that, as a group, Europeans do not trust their politicians and institutions, electoral turnout is low, and the fabric of society is weak. On the other hand, international comparisons show that, whereas a generation of disillusioned youngsters alienated from society seems to be developing in the US, the youth of Europe are just as likely as their older counterparts to be engaged in voluntary organisations.
Not content to rest on their achievements, some participants in the ESS are already thinking ahead to a more ambitious future for quantitative European social research. Gordon Marshall, Vice-chancellor of the UK's University of Reading, said that the next step should be a fully fledged cohort study, sampling up to 25,000 children born in each EU Member States every few years. Through building up a profile of their biological, social and psychological formation, real insights could be gained into the interaction between genetic and social factors, argued Mr Marshall. He even had a name for this new project - the European Cohort Study or ECOS.
The conference ended on an upbeat note with Andrew Sors of the European Commission's Research DG congratulating ESS participants on the results that they had produced after just three years, and wishing them continued success in the future.
For further details on the European Social Survey, please consult the following web address: