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6 March 2016

Meet the most studied people on earth

The party guests were each recruited, back in 1946, for a study that was intended to last the full length of their lives.

By Michael Brooks

In March 2011, Helen Pearson went to a birthday party where everyone was turning 65. Although she was three decades younger than the other guests and knew almost no one there, she tucked in to the cake and chatted with strangers. “It was a warm, wonderful evening,” she says.

It was also the starting point for her new book, The Life Project. Each of the guests was recruited, back in 1946, for a study that was intended to last the full length of their lives. Pearson, who runs the features department at the science journal Nature, was invited to help research an article. She was immediately enchanted. “They’re all very committed to it and happy that these scientists are going to follow them until they die,” she says.

Unfortunately, she adds, things are changing. We meet at Pearson’s offices, a sleek building near King’s Cross, and nestle into one of the minimalist meeting cubicles. In the decades since 1946, science has gained the trappings of corporate life and, perhaps, a little of the associated mistrust.

After recruiting a generation of subjects roughly every 12 years (with one hiccup, a missed cohort in 1982), the latest round of studies has been cancelled. There simply wasn’t enough interest. “It may be that people are much more cynical and sceptical than they were just after the [Second World War], when they all wanted to do their bit for the country,” Pearson suggests.

Because of the cancellation, Pearson needed to rewrite the ending of her book. The scientists involved are hugely disappointed, she says. There is a palpable sense that this might signal the death of the 70-year project. “I don’t know if that’s true,” she says. “I hope not.”

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Whatever the outcome, we have learned a great deal. The studies provided data on whether home births had better outcomes than hospital births; on whether being born poor has an impact on educational achievement; on the effects of birthweight on future health.

“The results have been used by politicians and policymakers in a way that suits them,” Pearson says. She is sanguine about the various ends to which the studies have been put. “In general, the outcome has been positive. It’s generally good to have more information . . . But I don’t think all of the consequences have been positive.”

One example might be the difficulties of those born into poverty. In 1973, the study’s results were digested in a slim paperback titled Born to Fail? – the text detailing the conditions in which the most disadvantaged often lived and explaining how their lives progressed without hope of moving out of Britain’s underclass. The book sold 80,000 copies at 30p each. Yet though it was seized upon by politicians, little changed.

“Children born into disadvantaged circumstances tend to follow a more difficult trajectory in their lives. That was true in 1946 and it was true at the millennium,” Pearson says. She admits to struggling with it. “I suppose I just ended up concluding that this is a really complicated problem.”

The book’s hidden hero – perhaps its tragic hero – is the National Health Service. Scientists and politicians come and go but the steadfast NHS has made it possible to recruit and collect data on more than 70,000 people over 70 years. No other country has anything comparable. A few have started cohort studies, but decades will pass before interesting data comes in. “You can’t play catch-up with cohort studies. The fact that we started this first one back in 1946 gives us a huge advantage.”

The studies are “gloriously British”, Pearson says. And she hopes that telling their story will put them on the map. “I’ve come to see them as a national institution that Britain doesn’t know it has.”

This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis