Informing Social Progress since 1966: ESRI Conference Marks 50 Years of Social Research

On Tuesday 29 November, the ESRI will hold a conference to mark the 50th year of conducting research on social issues, providing a scientific evidence-base for policy areas including education, healthcare and poverty alleviation.

For fifty years, social research in the ESRI has led new thinking on critical social issues in Ireland, developing new ways of measuring poverty, deprivation and quality of life, establishing a  model to assess the distributional impact of tax and welfare policies and tracking the experiences and outcomes of young people as they move through the educational system. The ESRI also played a leading role in undertaking the Growing Up in Ireland study and supported Trinity College Dublin in developing and undertaking The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA).

Conference speakers, including former and current researchers, will discuss these contributions and consider the role of social research in meeting the new and different challenges of 21st Century Ireland. Professor Brian Nolan from the University of Oxford will deliver the keynote speech titled “Inequality and its discontents”.  Researchers will present ongoing work, to be published at a later date, on topics including inclusive education, migrant children and gender equality in the workplace.

Milestones in social research

In 1966, the remit of the Economic Research Institute was expanded to include research on social public policy challenges in addition to economic issues, and the organisation was renamed the Economic and Social Research Institute. Since then, the ESRI has published more than 1,000 reports on social issues and pioneered initiatives that provide vital resources for policymakers across a range of research areas.

A selection of key developments is outlined below.

Education and post-school transitions

Since the 1980s, researchers at the ESRI have conducted a number of large-scale studies on young people’s experiences of the school system. These studies have identified the individual and school factors influencing disengagement from school, early leaving and exam performance, highlighting the way in which school experiences can shape inequalities in outcomes. Related research on post-school transitions has unpacked the influences on young people’s decision-making about going on to further or higher education and has identified the factors shaping employment chances and the quality of initial employment.

Poverty, Social Inclusion and Income Inequality

ESRI research on poverty over the past 30 years shifted focus from low incomes to a wider concern with multidimensional deprivation. Research has focused on understanding the underlying processes of poverty and deprivation and how they respond to changing economic circumstances and policy interventions, and has also utilised longitudinal and European data to analyse the dynamics of poverty in Ireland and place it in comparative context. Work in this area has contributed significantly to assessing the impact of the Great Recession, challenging widely held beliefs and enhancing understanding of the distributional consequences of the recovery.

Recently, researchers developed an index of 11 indicators to form a new way to measure quality of life in Ireland that accounts for the impact of non-monetary factors, including mental distress, housing problems and institutional mistrust. Applying this method of measurement has generated new insights into the coordinated response across policy areas required to support vulnerable groups in Ireland.


Over the last 50 years, ESRI research on health and the healthcare system has focused on major health policy challenges in Ireland such as healthcare financing and resource allocation, and health inequalities. ESRI researchers have highlighted the consequences of Ireland’s public-private mix in healthcare financing and delivery for equity and efficiency in the system, with recent research providing evidence on how to move towards a system of universal healthcare. Research on health inequalities has highlighted the way in which social position influences health and wellbeing outcomes across the population. The recent availability of longitudinal data from GUI and TILDA has allowed researchers to delve more deeply into the ways in which health inequalities emerge across the lifecourse.

Gender Inequalities in the Labour Market

From an early survey of women in the labour market carried out in 1973, ESRI research has regularly revisited the causes and consequences of gender inequality in the labour market. These studies have addressed a huge range of topics from changing gender role attitudes, demographic changes in families, rising education levels and the gender pay gap through to gendered patterns of time spent on unpaid work and caring. These studies have enhanced understanding of the complex processes that produce and reproduce gender inequalities.

Longitudinal Studies

Researchers from the ESRI and Trinity College Dublin collaborate on two longitudinal studies established in 2006, providing policy-relevant insights into the life experiences of children and older people in Ireland. The Growing Up in Ireland study tracks almost 20,000 children across Ireland and The Irish Longitudinal Study of Ageing (TILDA) tracks 8,000 individuals age 50+. These data sets provide new opportunities to examine changes in quality of life from infancy to old age to yield new insights into policy levers that could ameliorate the cumulative effects of inequality and disadvantage over time.

The SWITCH model and the Budget Perspectives conference series

Developed in 1986, the ESRI tax-benefit model, SWITCH (Simulating Welfare and Income Tax Changes) uses detailed data on incomes and other tax and welfare relevant characteristics from the CSO Survey on Income and Living Conditions. SWITCH simulates how households are affected by the rules of the current system, and by proposed reforms.

In a related contribution to the budgetary process, the Budget Perspectives conference has taken place annually since 1999. It provides a platform for dialogue on budget-related issues, bringing together stakeholders in government, academia and civil society to discuss new research findings. Notable topics of discussion have included work incentives and the impact of minimum wage increases on poverty alleviation.

Alan Barrett, Director of the ESRI commented
“For fifty years, the ESRI has provided an unparalleled role in tackling intractable social issues in Ireland, providing a sound evidence base on which to base policymaking decisions, challenging assumptions and transforming the social policy debate and the policymaking process over time. The expertise and research methodologies developed over five decades leave us well positioned to provide the independent voice and rigorous analysis demanded by the considerable social policy challenges facing present-day Ireland.”

Emer Smyth, Head of the Social Analysis Division, added

“Social policy challenges in Ireland have become increasingly complex in recent years, mainly because of changing demographic patterns and the impact of the recent economic crisis. ESRI research plays a critical role in understanding the persistence of inequalities on the basis of social background and gender while highlighting the situation of groups often previously neglected in Irish social research including children and adults with disabilities and Travellers. The social research division is committed to highlighting the issues facing such vulnerable groups and contributing to policies that positively impact on the lives of people across Ireland.”

Visit this webpage to view a timeline of milestones in social research at the ESRI. 

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