£24 million boost to UK’s biggest study of babies and young children

1 March 2011

The largest ever UK-wide study of babies and young children today received a landmark £24.25 million commitment from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). This investment adds to the £4.25 million awarded to scientists at University College London (UCL) by two leading research councils, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC).

This pioneering Study will track the growth, development, health, wellbeing and social circumstances of over 90,000 UK babies and their families - from all walks of life – and will initially cover the period from pregnancy right through to the early years. Recruitment is due to begin in 2012. It will be the fifth such study in a series of world renowned UK studies which have followed the lives of children from birth to adult life. The first of these started in 1946 with the post war generation and the most recent with those born at the turn of the twenty first century. As is the case with these earlier studies, this new Study will provide a wealth of insights into the health, development and life circumstances of this new generation of children. This new Study has been developed by a team comprising the UK’s leading biomedical and social scientists. It has been designed to reflect the rich diversity of ethnic identity and social backgrounds of babies being born in today’s Britain and include wider and more intensive study of children during their first year of life.

It will provide information to help address important questions for children’s health and wellbeing. These include:

  • What are the key factors that help some children to overcome social disadvantage at birth and improve their life chances?
  • How do eating and physical activity behaviours develop in very early life and influence growth, body composition and weight gain in later childhood?
  • How does a child’s early temperament interact with parenting style and influence social and emotional communication styles and difficulties in later childhood?
  • What are the effects of exposure to a range of environmental pollutants during early infancy on children’s subsequent health and development?

Professor Carol Dezateux, Director of the MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health at UCL and leader of the scientific team responsible for this new Study said: "It is crucial we find out more about how biological and environmental influences combine to shape children’s health, development and future life chances. We know that a child’s first year of life can have a huge impact on future health and wellbeing but need to understand more about how this happens and its relation to the diverse social circumstances of families in Britain today. It is particularly exciting that we will start recruiting parents to this unique Study during 2012, a year already made special by the Olympics and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee."

Professor Stephen Holgate, chair of the MRC Population and Systems Medicine Board, said: "The Birth Cohort Study is a great example of how, by working in close collaboration with ESRC, the MRC’s strategic aim to inspire interdisciplinary research from a life course perspective is being delivered. As the largest birth cohort to be established within the UK, it will be scientifically-led and interdisciplinary in design from the outset. The potential for learning from the data is huge and will contribute to our society’s future lifelong health and wellbeing."

Professor Paul Boyle, Chief Executive of the ESRC said: "The Council is delighted to work with the MRC in supporting this ground-breaking study that will maintain the UK’s leading position in social and biomedical studies. By tracking the same individuals from their time in utero, through birth and for the rest of their lives will reveal the key social, economic and biological influences on their development during a period of considerable change in UK society.  The exciting combination of leading social and medical scientists who are managing this study will provide new cross-disciplinary insights that will provide vital information to support effective policymaking for this and future generations."

The Birth Cohort Study will be strengthened by a new resource, the Cohort Resources Facility. This world leading resource will play a vital role in maximising the use, value and impact of the data collected from both the new and existing UK birth cohort studies. By establishing a national centre of excellence across each of these studies, researchers and policymakers will be able to make better comparisons over time and between different cohorts, measuring the changes in intergenerational social mobility and educational attainment. The Cohort Resources Facility will make the most of the UK’s existing investments and ensure the UK’s world leading position in life course and birth cohort studies. It will provide unprecedented opportunities to understand how economic, social and biological factors combine to explain human behaviour in key important areas such as health, poverty, child development and healthy ageing.

For further information contact:

To speak to Professor Carol Dezateux please contact:

  • UCL Institute of Child Health Press Office
    Email: vessem@gosh.nhs.uk
    Telephone: 020 7239 3125/3126

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors

  1. A birth cohort study follows the progress and experiences of the same individuals at different points in time to track the influence of early health and life circumstances on outcomes and achievements in later life. They allow the influence of a wide range of factors that have changed with successive generations to be explored, ranging from nutrition and exercise to family structure, access to education and parental employment patterns. The first large scale UK cohort study to take place was the 1946 National Survey of Health and Development.
  2. Research based on birth cohort studies has provided new and unique understanding about factors influencing health and wellbeing in later life. For example, evidence of the consequences of childhood disadvantage drawn from birth cohort studies has been instrumental in shaping Government policies aimed at eradicating child poverty and reducing persistent inequalities whether in health, education, opportunity or social mobility. For further information see: ‘Our Changing Lives’ website.
  3. The funding made available for the birth cohort study will support the first three contacts with parents and babies from pregnancy through to their first birthday. It is envisaged the Study will continue well beyond this, following children and families throughout their early childhood and beyond.
  4. Professor Carol Dezateux, Director of the MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health at the Institute of Child Health, University College London and a consultant paediatrician at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, will lead the Birth Cohort Study Scientific Leadership Team which includes scientists and academics from the following universities and institutions: the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Essex, Leicester, Manchester, Oxford, Southampton, Swansea, Warwick and York, as well as Imperial College London, the Institute of Education, Kings College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
  5. For almost 100 years the Medical Research Council (MRC) has improved the health of people in the UK and around the world by supporting the highest quality science. The MRC invests in world-class scientists. It has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners and sustains a flourishing environment for internationally recognised research. The MRC focuses on making an impact and provides the financial muscle and scientific expertise behind medical breakthroughs, including one of the first antibiotics penicillin, the structure of DNA and the lethal link between smoking and cancer. Today MRC funded scientists tackle research into the major health challenges of the 21st century.
  6. The UCL Institute of Child Health is, with Great Ormond Street Hospital, one of the top five research institutions for children in the world. The Institute plays a significant role in the high citation ratings for research enjoyed by clinical science at UCL and plays a leadership role in the Child Health theme of UCL Partners. Our MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health comprises the largest critical mass of expertise in paediatric epidemiology in the UK.
  7. The ESRC is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2010/11 is £218 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.