Brussels, 08 Dec 2005
'Until recently, it would have been very unlikely that a major award would go to a team working in the social sciences, and this signifies an overdue and welcome recognition of the growing importance of this field.'
That was the reaction of the European Social Survey (ESS) project coordinator, Professor Roger Jowell, on 2 December when the ESS became the first social sciences project to win the EU's Descartes Prize for collaborative research.
Shortly after the prize ceremony at the UK's Royal Society, CORDIS News asked Professor Jowell, from London's City University, why he thought the ESS had been singled out by the Descartes Prize Grand Jury for the prestigious award. 'I believe we were chosen because the project aims to improve the quantitative measurement of social phenomenon, based upon the same rigorous principles common in other scientific disciplines.'
Indeed in many ways, given the complexity of human interactions with each other people and the world, the task of mapping them in a comparable way across national borders is often more complicated than studying interactions in the natural world, believes Professor Jowell.
Laws of behaviour tend to be less in evidence among humans than they are among phenomenon studies in the natural sciences,' he said. 'People are opinionated in a way that their counterparts in the natural world are not - they are capable of believing one thing and doing quite another.' While it may never be possible to measure people's attitudes with perfect accuracy, the ESS has developed and refined a unique scientific methodology to permit accurate Europe-wide mapping of changing social attitudes and beliefs.
ESS began as collaboration under the Human Potential priority of the Fifth Framework Programme, explained Professor Jowell. 'Six institutions from five Member States submitted the proposal to the Commission to create a continuing central database to be fed by surveys conducted simultaneously in all participating countries. [...] There was immediate recognition that this would provide an invaluable source of data for academics from a very broad range of social science disciplines, as well as for politicians and civil servants, think tanks, journalists and the public at large.'
To gather the data, a national coordinator and survey institute in each participating country (21 EU countries plus Norway, Switzerland, Ukraine, Iceland Turkey and Israel) organise face-to-face interviews with at least 1,500 randomly selected citizens aged 15 and above. The questionnaire developed by the ESS consists of a core set of indicators, addressing areas such as trust in institutions, moral and social values, religious identity, welfare and security, and perceived quality of life. In addition, there are questions on topic-specific issues which are designed for each round of interviews, such as attitudes to immigration and citizenship or the work-family balance.
'This allows us to look at questions such as whether Europe's social model and welfare systems discourage people from looking after each other, testing such hypotheses with reliable data,' Professor Jowell explained. This, in turn, can provide policy makers with the evidence to make European governance more responsive. 'We use a whole range of economic indicators to measure a country's performance, but there are currently very few social indicators. Democratic societies need to know these attitudes and take them into account in order to improve the sensitivity and responsiveness of European governments.'
As an indication of just how valuable ESS data are, Professor Jowell points out that since the results of the second round of questionnaires were made freely available in September 2003, over 7,000 registered visitors to the website have made use of the data or survey documentation for further statistical analyses and publications. 'There is a huge appetite for sound data of this kind,' he confirms.
The ESS consortium has secured further EU funding under the Sixth Framework Programme, and has achieved another first for a social science project in becoming the first such initiative to be recognised by the Commission as an infrastructure in its own right. Looking to the future, Professor Jowell stresses that further data collection is only one part of the equation. 'We also have to develop better comparative measurements and refine the methodologies - there's lots to be done, and it will be a long haul.'
'And will the 200,000 euro prize money that accompanied the Descartes Prize help with that effort?' CORDIS News asked. 'One possibility is to use the money to establish a one-year 'Descartes Prize Fellowship' in every participating institution within the ESS,' revealed Professor Jowell. 'But whatever we do, we will make sure that there are tangible outputs from winning this prize.'