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Tackling inequalities at source or perpetuating them: social investment strategy debated

The aim of social investment is to prevent vulnerability by intervening right from the start of the life course. In the presence of very eminent experts in the field, an international conference and a round table discussion will assess this strategy, which is growing in Europe and elsewhere, but is still largely undeveloped in Swiss institutions and is also the subject of some criticism. The conference will take place on 10 and 11 April 2014 at the University of Lausanne.

Investing in the development of skills from early childhood enables the welfare state to significantly reduce its expenditure in the medium and long term: this is what the Nobel Laureate in Economics James Heckman calculated in 2009 on the basis of data from a famous experiment, The Perry Preschool Study. This longitudinal study, which was conducted on two groups of children starting in the 1960s, shows that, forty years later, those who received good quality pre-schooling have higher levels of education, more stable jobs and higher incomes, and less arrest records.

Esping-Andersen special guest

These findings corroborate the concept of social investment that has been developed since the 1990s by Gøsta Esping-Andersen. Currently a professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, he is one of the most quoted authors in the field of research on the welfare state and has taken part in numerous international organisations in order to bring this thinking into the political arena. But the views of the Danish sociologist also have their detractors. Facing some of these sceptics, he will be one of the keynote speakers at the “Assessing social investment strategy” conference organised by Prof. Giuliano Bonoli and four Swiss, French and Dutch colleagues on 10-11 April at the University of Lausanne (IDHEAP) with the support of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES. The other speakers in the plenary sessions will be Bea Cantillon (University of Antwerp), Anton Hemerijck (VU University Amsterdam) and Bruno Palier (Science Po Paris).

According to its advocates, social investment aims to promote social justice and responds to the need to reform the welfare state in the post-industrial context, as characterised by the rise in unemployment, changing family structures, female employment, migratory movements and the ageing of the population. In the research community, however, some argue that existing measures primarily benefit the middle class and reflect a utilitarian and accounting logic that aims to further increase tax revenues and reduce the costs of social protection rather than fostering genuine human development. One of the objectives of the conference is to allow researchers to compare these points of view based on empirical results, giving rise to around thirty presentations.

A new trend... except in Switzerland

Another interesting aspect of the event is that it will look beyond the strictly European framework to see what is happening on other continents, and finally bring the debate to Switzerland. Indeed, while the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Commission have recently adopted positions that are very favourable to social investment, less attention is given to what is happening in this field in the rest of the world, and Switzerland does not seem particularly concerned. "Certain measures along the lines of social investment have been taken in some cities and cantons, particularly in the areas of early childhood and professional reintegration, but few political parties have made it a central feature of their programmes", says Prof. Bonoli. At the Swiss Federal Social Insurance Office (OFAS), the head of the Research and Evaluation sector confirms that this subject is not on the agenda and no studies are currently being conducted into it.

The conference will conclude with a round table discussion, which will include contributions from figures from various political, administrative and academic spheres, at both the Swiss and European levels. Views on social investment ranging from enthusiastic to cautious and critical will be represented. OFAS Deputy Director Ludwig Gärtner will take part, which the organisers hope will provide a good opportunity for Switzerland to get involved in this debate.

"Women and children first"

One of the conference organisers, Prof. Bruno Palier, has been very active in advancing the cause of social investment in Europe, which, in 2013, resulted in the adoption by the European Commission of a Social Investment Package. This series of recommendations to the Member States for the modernisation of their social security systems underlines the importance of preparing populations for life’s uncertainties rather than simply dealing with the consequences. The researcher notes, however, that “for now, much more energy is put into monitoring budgetary restraint than into social investment projects".

He also cautions against the temptation to substitute social investment for social protection, which he considers to be complementary approaches. And responding to criticism, for example that the increase in the number of nursery places primarily favours affluent families, he reminds us that "to succeed, social investment must aim for universality, and, in the meantime, should target the poorest populations, giving priority to single mothers and migrants".

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Data collection on the life course of low-income households

The Vaud Department for Health and Social Action has commissioned the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES and the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences FORS to conduct a study in order to gain a better understanding of developments in income instability in the canton, and to take this into account in future social policy reforms. Between January and April 2014, more than 800 households of Vaud residents will have been integrated into the longitudinal study of the Swiss Household Panel.

"Hard-to-reach populations are the ones we are most interested in!" Professor Felix Bühlmann has good reason to be pleased with the agreement signed in November 2013 between the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Science FORS and the Department for Health and Social Action (DSAS): thanks to this agreement, it has been possible to select around 800 families residing in the canton of Vaud to add to the sample from the Swiss Household Panel. Individuals on a low income are intentionally over-represented in this sample. Data collection will come to an end in April.

A quarter of inhabitants on low incomes

In the Lake Geneva region, it is estimated that 16.4% of people live under the poverty risk threshold (set at 60% of median income), whether they belong to the category of the working poor or whether they are recipients of welfare benefits. However, in addition, a quarter of the residents of Vaud receive a subsidy in order to pay for their health insurance, and can thus be considered as being on a low income. "The objective is to obtain a systematic and synthetic overview of how the situation of vulnerable individuals evolves in order to strengthen the support system. This objective is in line with the 2012–2017 legislative programme, which aims to focus on prevention," explains Judith Kühr, who is responsible for research at DSAS and for coordination between the government and the NCCR LIVES on this project.

This is the second oversampling exercise to which LIVES has contributed in connection with the Swiss Household Panel, led by the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Science FORS. The other experiment centres around young people between 15 and 24 who have been educated in Switzerland, two-thirds of whom are second generation migrants. In both cases, the focus is on populations who are generally under-represented in large surveys.

In addition to the questionnaire on the household as a whole, which is conducted by telephone or face-to-face, each individual member of the family is then invited to fill in a "life calendar". This tool makes it possible to track the trajectories they have taken in different domains, including work and health. The part reserved for relations with the institutions has been slightly adapted in the case of the Vaud oversampling exercise, in order to gain a more detailed overview of the links between the respondents and each welfare service provider: social services, unemployment services, disability insurance.

Long-term follow-up

The Swiss Household Panel (SHP) intends to re-interview the same people every year in order to be able to trace their development. A first sample has been ongoing since 1999 and a second since 2004. The third SHP sample, collected since 2013 with the help of LIVES, provides a life course perspective and focus more on the issue of vulnerability. Several of the 14 LIVES projects have added questions, and are waiting for the data collected by the polling institute MIS Trend so that they can carry out their analyses.

The canton of Vaud is expected to receive an initial report at the beginning of 2015, then another after each wave of the survey. This collaboration between a government body and academic research centres is a positive development: "We have set the objectives together, and we have come to compromises in order to adapt ourselves to a different approach, a different time frame," states Professor Felix Bühlmann. From a methodological point of view, oversampling is a challenge, as it means that certain observations have to be weighted. This experiment will therefore not only provide the authorities with information, but will also lead to scientific progress.

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Social sciences research and social media: false enemies that must be brought together

The presence of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES on social networks is growing. In what ways can these new forms of media be useful for academic research, and what are their target audiences?

Like a seed sprouting after a long winter, the NCCR LIVES audience on Facebook and Twitter has recently started to emerge with the appointment of a young "Community Manager", namely Fiona Friedli. In one month, the number of followers has grown by about 40%, bringing together people from all walks of life. In the research community, however, the issue is still far from being resolved and plenty of reservations remain.

At the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, we believe that social networks are useful tools for the transfer of knowledge that has been generated. As pointed out by communication sociologists Philippe Breton and Serge Proulx, “web users do not focus exclusively on what they are looking for a priori, but let their curiosity take them around different parts of the information environment”. The challenge is therefore to grab their attention through concise information so that readers can then be directed to more substantial content.

Promoting research

The objective of the LIVES communications team is to promote the work of the Centre’s researchers and to provide information to stakeholders and the general public. The links posted on social networks can refer to events, scientific publications, outreach papers or more generalist press articles about research.

Unlike other means of communication, social networks like Twitter or Facebook have a “pollinator” effect: when information affects one person, this person can pass it on very quickly to his or her own network. Thus social media may be seen as information channels that complement the other tools we already use to communicate both inside and outside the University.


But this view is by no means unanimous in the academic world. Recently in Le Monde CNRS researcher Sylvain Deville expressed disappointment that, unlike the Anglo-Saxon countries, French researchers are often hostile to the use of social networks for relaying academic information, even though at an institutional level more and more research centres and laboratories have accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

It seems to us that the lack of legitimacy affecting social networks also applies more generally to all non-scientific communication media. Which raises other issues: is it desirable to disseminate scientific research widely, and in order to do so to sometimes simplify the content of research?

Scientist and citizen

In regard to this point we refer to a debate by sociologists Cyril Lemieux, Laurent Mucchielli, Erik Neveu and Cécile Van de Velde, the latter also being very active on Twitter. This discussion - “The sociologist in the media: sharing and distorting?” - addresses the issues relating to the presence of sociologists in the media sphere, from the point of view of the sociologist as both a scientist and citizen.

Erik Neveu notes for example that while media coverage of Sociology is currently growing and that this may present some risk of manipulation or diminishing of scientific language for researchers, it also allows “the introduction into social debates of elements of objectification of questions and formulation of research questions that can stave off simplifications, the false clarity of common sense, and the well-framed arguments of lobbies or institutions who have a hidden agenda."

Dialogue with society

The sociologist adds that "this duty to speak also comes from the fact that we have the privilege of being able to conduct often exciting research thanks to taxpayers." While subtly drawing attention to some areas of tension which researchers have to address, Erik Neveu invites them to take on this demanding challenge: to make themselves heard in the media and society.

Conscious of these issues, and in accordance with the mandate of the Swiss National Science Foundation, the management of the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES intends to promote dialogue between the academic world and society at large: politics, economy, institutions, associations and media. A task to be achieved through collaboration between the Centre’s researchers and for which it is preferable to increase the number of communication channels.

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