Meet the Board: Professor Alison Park

16 August 2018

Professor Alison Park is Director of CLOSER at the UCL Institute of Education. CLOSER brings together eight longitudinal studies, the British Library and the UK Data Service to share resources and expertise, provide training and stimulate longitudinal research. It is funded by the ESRC and MRC. Alison Park teaches on UCL’s Social Science degree. She sits on a number of advisory boards for research centres and funders. Before joining UCL Institute of Education, she led a research team at NatCen Social Research where she designed, resourced and implemented a range of commissioned and grant-funded research studies.

What is your social science background?

Alison Park (AP): My undergraduate degree was in Social Science (with a specific focus on Politics and Sociology), and I then did an M.Phil in Sociology at Nuffield College. During that I analysed data from a survey of academics, focusing on the experience of female academics and their career progression; this partly influence a decision at the time not to stay within academia. But I was clear that I wanted to work in research so I moved to NatCen Social Research (then SCPR) where I had a variety of different roles over the years. Towards the end of my time at NatCen I became increasingly interested in longitudinal studies – and this led me to my current role at CLOSER. CLOSER is a collaboration whose work focuses on maximising the use, value and impact of longitudinal studies. This involves new research projects (with a particular focus on data harmonisation and data linkage) as well as work focused on impact, data discovery, and training and capacity building.

Why did you decide to pursue a social-science focused career?

AP: It felt like an obvious choice for me. At its best, social research blends both the creative and the practical in a way that is very fulfilling. Originally the impetus was probably just curiosity about people as well as an interest in that age-old social science tension between individual agency and social structure. But later on in my career I became as interested in the role that research can (or should) play in effective policy making, so that is now a major motivating factor in my career as well.

How have your social science skills benefited you in your career?

AP: My social science skills have underpinned my whole career. They have shaped the way I think about the world and the manner in which different elements of life intersect, and have provided me with a set of tools or analytic approaches. This isn’t just confined to my career; I’m sure my social science background has implicitly shaped a lot of my non-work activity too. My role at CLOSER involves working with longitudinal studies and research from a range of different social science and biomedical disciplines and it has been interesting to see the similarities and differences in how different disciplines approach the same issues.

What motivated you to join the Campaign Board and what do you hope to achieve?

AP: A belief in the value and importance of the social sciences, and a desire to do what I can to help promote them. Many of our most pressing challenges require input from the social sciences if we are to understand and address them properly. Take four very current issues – rising levels of obesity, the mental health of young people, educational inequality, and the gender pay gap. None can properly be understood or tackled without drawing on the social sciences. Of course there is an array of work already happening in this area, but I think we can be more vocal about its value.

What are some interesting upcoming projects you’re working on?

AP: I’m involved a range of really interesting projects at the moment. Three that are at the top of my current to do list are:

  • CLOSER recently launched its Learning Hub, which provides accessible and engaging online content to help people who are new to longitudinal studies. We’re now working on new content for the autumn which will include material that takes people through some of the basics of data analysis using longitudinal data.
  • I’m working closely with a colleague who has recently joined CLOSER and will be helping us develop a strategic understanding of the opportunities for longitudinal research in developing countries, funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund.
  • CLOSER is involved in a European-wide project called EuroCohort, which is designing and preparing the groundwork for a cross-national longitudinal study on child and young adult well-being, funded by the European Commission under Horizon2020. It’s a really ambitious project, which we hope will lead to the first Europe-wide cohort study.