Friday, 20 April 2012


One of the pages that regularly greets me when I get on to the Internet is Science Daily. Sometimes I read the top few stories, which are generally based on press-releases from research institutions of various types (Universities, Institutes, Government departments) about their latest findings having been published somewhere in the academic press. The topics covered range from the physical via the other wonders of nature all the way through to the psychological and social. And in this last, in particular, you occasionally encounter the phrase "A longitudinal study". At which point I always find myself wondering, how did they get funding?

Now there are many reasons why someone may wonder how a research project got paid for. If the findings are really banal ("Being beside the sea is good for you"), it's "Why on earth did somebody shell out to get a re-statement of the bleedin' obvious?". If the findings exonerate something that common knowledge holds to be harmful ("Sugar 'Not main cause of tooth decay' _ study") we suspect a sponsor in the relevant industry.

And finally, in the case of a longitudinal study, I wonder, "Who is the enlightened, and long-lived, sponsor, that these lucky researchers have found?". Because the thing about longitudinal studies is that the results emerge years, sometimes generations, after the funding starts going in. Someone, somewhere, has to take the long view. In fact, has to be able to take the long view. It has to avoid being the victim of funding cuts, re-organisations, failure to replace staff, changes in "fashion" in research fact everything ranging from simple neglect to the effects of warfare. I like to find them: these days, they're something of an endangered species.

One way round all this is for your research institution to find longitudinal information from someone else: someone whose paid job it has been to collect it, for some perfectly prosaic reason unconnected with research. A happy hunting-ground for this is the field of Meteorology. A colleague in one of my previous research jobs was once lent 50 years-worth of minute-by-minute rainfall-rate readings from Spain (bear in mind that for some of those years, the country was embroiled in civil war).

Well I can't match that, but we do have, elsewhere in Famille Lunchista, twenty years of handwritten notes in meteorological diaries. I've decided to take it on as a bit of a Project, and see if it reveals any earthshattering insights about the climate in the Lake District.

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