Brussels, 19 Nov 2003
Next week, the Commission will unveil the European Social Survey (ESS), a comprehensive study designed to inform debate on key policy issues by shedding light on the complex relationships between European citizens and European institutions.
Launched with support from the European Union's Framework Programme for research, the ESS is a biennial survey of values and patterns of behaviour in 23 countries. It was set up in the late 1990s by the European Science Foundation (ESF) to compare social attitudes across countries in Europe.
Soon realising the difficulties of comparing national datasets collected using different surveying methods, a steering committee made up of national members of the ESF came up with a plan to produce a Europe-wide survey with common methods for sampling and interviewing. Roger Jowell, Director of the Centre for Comparative Social Surveys at London's City University, was appointed to head the methodological group.
"We decided that [a Europe-wide survey] could be done, but it would require a common, centrally coordinated approach," Jowell said. But the committee grappled with a basic problem facing many researchers with grand ambitions. "We had no idea how it might be funded," recalled Jowell. "But, somewhat to our surprise, our first bid for funding from the Fifth Framework Programme [FP5] was successful."
Working example of transnational research
This is where the European Union got involved. The EU's executive body, the Commission, made a significant contribution to the over €1.8 million bill to cover the development costs of coordinating and managing the first round of the ESS. In turn, the ESF funded the transnational liaison and academic guidance expenses incurred by the project which was called ESSIE. This left the participating national science foundations to pay for the surveying activities in their own countries.
One of the Commission's conditions for co-financing ESSIE was that at least nine countries should agree to fund national surveys carried out to the project's specifications, Jowell said. The six partners of the project from the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway managed to secure commitment from 23 countries to take part in the survey – completed at the end of 2002. The first dataset was published in September on a dedicated website, with a report on the findings set to be launched by Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin on 25 November.
ESSIE is a pioneering example of the European added value which can be achieved through multinational research co-operation. "If it is to grow into a fully integrated Union, Europe needs to collect good data about itself in many fields," Jowell noted. Already, further FP5 funding has been secured for the coordination of ESS2 in 2004, and Jowell is hopeful that the Union's current research programme FP6 will support the third round in 2006.
"The ESS has become the standard-bearer of reliable cross-national social research… in [its] urgent attempts to improve the accuracy and explanatory power of data on Europe's changing values," concluded Jowell.