We must not take evidence for granted

Evidence, data and insight must be protected and prioritised in the UK’s Covid recovery, says MRS CEO Jane Frost CBE

With falling temperatures, tightening restrictions and the return of the Downing Street briefings, recent weeks have created a distinct feeling of ‘here we go again’. My heart sank on reading last week’s headlines about supermarket bosses urging shoppers to show restraint. It stirred up not-so-warm memories of March 2020, its images of empty grocery aisles and loud accusations of ‘selfish stockpiling’.

As is often the case, nuance and facts are much less exciting. Data from research agency Kantar showed that only three per cent of British shoppers were actively stockpiling and buying tins and toilet roll in extraordinary quantities during those early days of the pandemic. The average person was picking up just one or two extra items in store – not really surprising when you consider schools and offices were closed and families had more mouths to feed throughout the day.  

Beware too of the frantic drive to adapt to – as the jargon has it – the ‘new normal’. Has the whole of society ‘pivoted’ (another word favoured by the commentators) or do a large number of people want the old normal back? The amount of hand wringing about the ban on late night partying might point to the latter for example.

Quality insight in a time of change
It’s easy to get caught up in hysteria when the media narrative is so dominant and plays to our greatest anxieties. But all the potential examples speak to a wider point: as we move forward and try to unpick the impact of this pandemic on our lives and crucially our futures – from the way we work and learn, to how we socialise and care for our older generations and those needing constant care – we need to stay focused on quality insight.  

Business owners and policy makers must make decisions based on evidence and insight, not just raw data, the headlines or worse still their Twitter feeds. Detailed analysis of the facts and the insights they reveal will ensure positive outcomes and long-term commercial success.

In this context, a recent survey MRS conducted of its members in collaboration with Watermelon Research should give us all cause for concern. Overall, there has been a slight uplift in optimism, with fewer research businesses predicting that revenues will be significantly lower than forecast over the full year – down to 70 per cent in August, from 85 per cent earlier in the pandemic. That shift is certainly a testament to the resilience of our sector and the hard work of research companies to adapt and innovate in the face of a global crisis.  

That being said, circa 70 per cent of face-to-face research remained on hold in August. It’s not surprising that these activities have been disproportionately affected by lockdown and social distancing measures, but we must not blithely accept this as an unfortunate and inevitable consequence of the pandemic.

We know that the vast majority of face-to-face work that had resumed by August was in support of government-commissioned Covid-19 projects, which demonstrates how vital this activity is in understanding societal changes. Now, as one of the largest commissioners of face-to-face social research projects in the UK, the government must commit to resuming and reprioritising face-to-face data collection when it is safe.  

This is not just about jobs, though the impact on thousands of fieldworkers around the country should not be overlooked, but there is simply no substitute for the work they do. No other form of research is able to capture the voices of hard-to-reach groups as effectively. As the recession bites, it might be tempting to pivot all research towards less expensive, tech-based alternatives, but that poses a significant risk. That we will miss certain ethnic groups, older people and those without access to technology, damaging the integrity of research and potentially disenfranchising whole sections of society for years to come.  

For those research businesses that have been able to continue or resume projects, the survey painted a picture of what the months ahead will bring and what they now need to survive. Even before the most recent tightening of restrictions, 88 per cent of participants were anticipating a large degree of home working for the foreseeable future. But they need greater support and investment in digital infrastructure to do this long term and one of the key findings of the survey was the need for extensive broadband coverage to support new ways of working.

With its back-to-work drive on hold, the government must now refocus on building a digital economy that is fit for the future and can support businesses through the months of lockdowns and economic uncertainty ahead. Its bricks and mortar-focused recovery plan, a New-Deal approach based on bridges, highways and trainlines, misses the point. Fast broadband speeds and their positive impacts on productivity are more critical to successful business strategies than high-speed commutes in the age of social distancing.   

We must not take evidence, data and insight for granted and government needs to act now to protect this world-leading sector so that it can continue to counter the dissemination of fake information, shine a light on the hardest-to-reach corners of our society and rebuild a Britain that is fully fit for purpose in a post Covid-19 world. 

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