Universities create citizens’ panel to test out public opinion


The panel will represent people from all walks of life, allowing researchers to study behaviour and attitudes to social and political issues

Wide-scale data

Flanders’ universities are uniting to create a large-scale panel that will test public opinion on a variety of social issues, from epidemics to mental health. The results should feed into research and policymaking.

The “probability panel” will be launched next year and should represent people of all demographics, allowing scientists to respond to current events. Discussions are taking place with the rectors of French-speaking universities, to ensure a spread of respondents across the country.

The panel will consist of a group of randomly selected citizens who will be regularly asked about social and economic issues and physical and mental health. It will quickly provide researchers with data on people’s behaviour, preferences and attitudes.

“By giving insight into what people think about current topics and what effects policy has on their behaviour, the panel can contribute to democratic and good government,” said Luc Sels, chair of the Flemish Interuniversity Council (Vlir). “The coronavirus crisis has made it clearer than ever that society needs reliable and representative data that can quickly feed into policy, science and society.”

Random sample

To allow a good reflection of the population and accurate measurements, the panel will be based on a random sample of people. They will be asked about research from a variety of scientific disciplines, giving researchers insight into the ways in which epidemiological, social, economic and psychological developments are connected.

It will allow scientists to quickly react to new developments. In the event of a new pandemic, for example, they will immediately be able to gauge what symptoms people are experiencing and the safety measures they are taking to avoid infection.

But it also allows longer-term monitoring of issues such as economic uncertainty at different layers of society, the extent of people’s social contacts, the mental wellbeing of various groups, how people feel about policy decisions, and how all these factors are related.

Such panels already exist in Germany, the Netherlands and France. Vlir’s aim is that analysis should eventually be possible for the whole of Belgium, not only Flanders.

Photo: Getty Images/FG Trade