The Future of Social Science Research in a Post-COVID World

Dr. Anis Ben Brik, associate professor and founding director of the Program for Social Policy and Evaluation Research (PROSPER) at the College of Public Policy, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Qatar


In the wake of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen governments relying heavily on scientific research to base their decision-making. Conversely, much work is still needed to close the impact gap for the social sciences. Especially as global policy-makers navigate the challenges and prospects of the post-pandemic recovery, every policy choice made will shape our post-pandemic world. Applied social science research can offer evidence and insights to inform decision-making.

Such is the scale of the immense societal challenges we are facing as a global community that no one actor, governmental or non-governmental, can single-handedly solve them. As I argued in my address at the 2020 UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development last July, COVID-19 is a threat multiplier that exacerbates employment, health, ethnic, generational, gender, educational, geographical, and digital inequalities. Evidence is needed to bring the enormous impact to light, and I believe that a better-networked social science community means improved capacity across the board to do so, to contribute to finding relevant solutions to societal problems and improved responses in the event of future crises.

A Uniquely Comprehensive COVID-19 Study

I have recently been the lead principal investigator of the largest and most comprehensive international research study of its kind, “The COVID-19 Family Life Study”. Initiated at the College of Public Policy at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, this empirical study surveyed families in 72 countries from North America, Africa, Europe, South America, Asia, Oceania, and the Middle East and North Africa including the State of Qatar, to assess the impact of the pandemic on family life and how this is likely to influence future government policy and programming.

The aims of the international study are wide-reaching and of value to all families and agencies concerned with their thriving: to track the pattern of the symptoms, causes and risk factors of mental health in parents; to understand the experiences, coping skills and mechanisms of parents under pandemic conditions; to identify parents’ needs, and to use this evidence to inform the design of policy and support for families in the future. Such aims reveal a strong understanding and recognition of the foundational role of parents in providing secure, stable and healthy home environments for their children.

We were able to mobilize an international research team of academics and experts representing the United Nations, academia and civil society organizations across the globe. Our shared agenda has demanded that we break down institutional walls between academics, researchers, NGO practitioners, communities, and policy-makers to achieve the needed outcome. In my view, the study offers up a best practice case study for social science research that will have a tangible impact on evidence-informed policy development for some time to come.

The data we gathered through this study provides a unique window into the commonalities and differences in how families both shaped and were shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic on every continent, across all income and education levels, and within all age groups. It took into account lifestyle variables: smoking, physical activity, health conditions, disabilities, large families, and economic impacts, making the study uniquely comprehensive. The findings offer up robust and reliable data to inform the design and delivery of mental health and psychosocial services for families across cultures.



Multidisciplinary Collaboration

One of the first major partnerships between academia and civil society, the Family Life Study has the support of global experts from NGOs, research institutes and universities in Europe, Asia, North America, Latin America, Africa, Oceania, and the Arab region. Partners include the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Division for Inclusive Social Development (UNDESA DISD), 28 researchers, and 21 international partners that included 10 universities and research centers, and 11 multidisciplinary NGOs.

To get the study off the ground, our partners leveraged their expertise and wider networks to help frame the survey instrument and ensure that it was locally relevant and inclusive before being translated into 23 different languages. National organizations helped to drive a massive data collection effort and were able to help us widely disseminate the survey both online and through telephone surveys, and reach communities and populations not easily accessible, in very remote areas in Africa, Asia, Latin America and refugee camps in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan and Libya. They also supported data analysis and are now providing outlets for sharing the findings publicly and for advocacy.


Impact

The high-quality data will serve a range of disparate needs by improving our understanding of how the pandemic and government responses have impacted family life across the globe. Ultimately, universities, researchers, and civil society organizations gain the place they need at the policy-making table. Decision-makers in Europe, Asia, South America and the Gulf region with whom we have shared the findings so far have welcomed the opportunity to engage and understand the findings as a basis for future policy decisions on how and where to channel financial resources and support, and to better plan for future pandemics. In this way, communities will derive the most benefit as the evidence we gathered is translated by governments into sound policy and practice that leads to improved support services for families.

A Post-Pandemic Model for Impactful Social Science Research

COVID-19 created the impetus to work together on a shared agenda but this partnership model need not be best practice reserved for public emergencies. It can and should become the new benchmark for public policy development post-pandemic. As academics, we continuously strive to demonstrate the impact of our research on society and communities. I believe the Family Life Study is an example of the impact we can achieve with our applied social science research if we collaborate, identify opportunities to learn from one another, and break down institutional walls and siloes.