CESSDA asks ten questions to Rory Fitzgerald
Professor Rory Fitzgerald is the Director of the European Social Survey (ESS).
The ESS is a biennial survey that compares the attitudes, values and behaviour of respondents across Europe. It was recognised as a landmark infrastructure by the European Strategy Forum for Research Infrastructures in Europe (ESFRI) in both its 2016 and 2018 roadmaps.
Rory is also an Associate Editor of the Survey Research Methods Journal and coordinator of the recently completed SERISS project. His current research focuses on methodological challenges in online surveys.
CESSDA asked Rory Fitzgerald to answer a few questions.
You are the first Director of ESS ERIC. In your experience, what is the main challenge of leading a pan-European Infrastructure?
I am the first Director of ESS ERIC but I learnt much from my predecessor Roger Jowell, who was the director prior to the ERIC being established. The main challenge of running an infrastructure like the ESS is balancing all of the various different stakeholders. It is always important to look after your immediate colleagues at the HQ as well.
30 countries took part in the most recent ESS round (Round 9) in 2018/19. That’s seven more than the last round (2016/17). What explains this notable increase?
When we became an ERIC, we lost countries due to the additional legal and financial constraints of joining a legal entity. In addition, the financial crisis hit research budgets. Thankfully, we were granted Horizon 2020 funding from the European Commission to help increase our membership after becoming an ERIC. We used Roaming Ambassadors to help reach out to academics and funders across Europe. Along with some other EC-funded activities, we have seen an increase in participation and we now have the most members of any ERIC. The more participating countries, the more comprehensive our dataset becomes.
You oversee the ESS National Coordinators Forum. To what extent will progress towards FAIR Data and EOSC be dependent on the choices made at a national level?
I think projects like ESS and SHARE have been largely operating according to the FAIR principles before the acronym even existed. ESS has always made its data freely available without privileged access. Our data archive, NSD, also ensures data is well documented and easily accessible. That recipe has meant over 150,000 users have registered to use ESS data. Our National Coordinators and the Core Scientific Team are proudly committed to that agenda.
How can ESS data help inform and shape public debate? What channels do you use to do so?
A recent review of non-academic impact arising from the ESS found multiple examples of how ESS data has been used to shape policy. My favourite example is how training for judges in Portugal now includes data from the ESS to show how trust in the Judiciary there compares to other countries in Europe.
The main pathway to impact is when our academic users analyse ESS data and produce rigorous outputs that subsequently feed into policy. There are almost 4,500 published academic articles where researchers have included primary analysis of our data and many of these support existing policies or promote new ways of thinking. We also organise occasional policy seminars, most recently with the health Commissioner in Brussels.
You have about 150,000 registered users of the ESS data, of which nearly 70% are students. How do you grow your user base?
Providing free and immediate access to well documented, high-quality data has meant the data has been highly attractive. Also, scholars who used ESS data in their student years and who remain in academia often use that later in their own teaching.
What kind of interactions do you have with the users of your data? What user services do you offer?
Most users simply download the data and are able to use it without further support. However, the ESS HQ and the data archive both answer specific queries. We also provide guidance documents, for example on how to apply weights, and offer online training called EduNet. We also organise periodic data user conferences, the most recent one being held in Mannheim in 2019. ESS also has scientific and methods advisory boards to ensure good connections with the user community. A user bulletin is also issued a few times per year.
All our national teams are very active in promoting the data to our users. This is mainly focused at academic and student users but also extends to those outside of academia (notably, the media, general public and policy makers). Most recently we consulted our data users directly about proposed changes to our core questionnaire through an online consultation.
What do you see as the main challenges and channels for introducing more people to academic research and enhancing citizen engagement?
ESS data and findings provide an opportunity for non-academics to engage with social science. We need to develop better tools for non-academics to engage with our data such as through providing more data visualisation and simple descriptions of our data. We hope to do more of this outreach following the release of our entire Round 9 (2018/19) data set when it is published in May 2020.
More personally, why is your current research project important to you and what will you do next?
Working for and then leading the ESS has been a real honour for me personally. I am passionate about measuring public opinion and behaviour to ensure that the people are heard. I am also driven to provide data to help build a more coherent and happier Europe and to ensure we are better placed to address key societal challenges. Looking ahead, I am hoping I can address the key challenge of future data collection for European research infrastructures and the possibility of launching an online survey panel for Europe (EUROPANEL).
What is your favourite question in the ESS?
Do you agree or disagree that ‘Gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own life as they wish’. I’ve always wondered why the word ‘own’ is in the question! I’ve also enjoyed seeing the more positive attitudes emerging over time in most (if not all) of Europe.
As a member of the European Survey Research Association (ESRA), what was your highlight from the Zagreb conference last year?
We shared the final results of our work through the SERISS project with our partners, SHARE, CESSDA, GGP, WageIndicator and ESS. It was a great event sharing some of the tools that we developed and other work with colleagues from across Europe (and beyond).
We asked Rory three extra questions relating to the political situation in the UK.
You recently received your Irish passport. Why did you apply for it?
Haha well spotted (via Twitter I guess)! Like many in the UK who had the opportunity due to their heritage or other connections and saw Brexit coming it made sense to ensure I could still have free movement in the future. It was also a nice way to reconnect with my Irish heritage. Thanks grandparents!
How concerned are you about Brexit and what will it mean for you and your team?
Brexit is a source of great personal and professional sadness to me. Now it is clear it will go ahead. My hope is that the UK will remain close to the EU for research, ideally being formally Associated. Both Norway and Switzerland amongst others have found ways to do this. I remain positive that a way forward can be found for the UK too.
If you were the UK Prime Minister for one day, what one action would you take?
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