Informing educational interventions using genome-wide data: causal evidence from 573,586 participants of eight cohort studies

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Social Medicine

Abstract

During this fellowship I will use the wealth genetic data from longitudinal cohort studies in UK and abroad to conduct innovative research into three core issues in modern economics, psychology and sociology: academic attainment, non-cognitive skills, and assortative matching in relationships. These are some of the most heavily researched topics across a range of social sciences (1-4). Many researchers have argued that the genome plays an important role in each of these topics, yet we have relatively little direct evidence about this. A major limitation of much of the existing research in this area is that it has struggled to account for intrinsic differences between individuals. I will overcome this limitation by combining the growing wealth of biosocial and genome-wide data, from eight longitudinal cohort studies from the UK and others around the world, with cutting edge econometric and statistical methods for causal inference. These novel data and methods offer an opportunity for new evidence and discoveries about research questions which were previously difficult or impossible to address (5, 6).

My research objectives are to investigate the following three research questions:

1) How are the effects of three genetic variants which associate with educational attainment mediated? What are their long-term effects on labour market outcomes?

To date, we know of three individual genetic variants that are associated with education attainment. We do not know which biosocial mechanisms mediate these effects. During this fellowship I will investigate this using data from the UK Biobank. This cohort study has genome-wide data on 500,000 individuals. Due to its size, the UK Biobank will offer unparalleled statistical power to investigate the aetiology of these associations and their long-term consequences. I will seek to replicate my findings, and investigate these relationships in more detail using rich and highly detailed information contained in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (N=8,000), and Understanding Society (N=10,000).

2) What is the genetic architecture of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, and educational outcomes across the life course?

Non-cognitive skills are a set of psychological character traits which are thought to influence success in school and at work, for example motivation, perseverance, emotional intelligence, resilience, and self-control (7). Research about the importance of non-cognitive skills has led to policy interventions which aim to improve children's non-cognitive skills (2, 8-10). However, whilst we know that these skills are associated with outcomes, we do not know if they cause success in school or work. I will add to the evidence about this question using genome-wide data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) offspring (N=8,365). I will seek to replicate these results in the National Child Development Study (N=5,595) and The Twins Early Development Study (N=3,500).

3) How does assortative mating affect the human genome? What are the consequences of assortative mating for interpreting the results of social-science studies using genome-wide datasets?

Despite the saying 'opposites attract', spouses tend to be more alike than two randomly chosen individuals from the population. In this project I will investigate whether this is because spouses come from similar backgrounds, or if spouses are also more likely to have similar genetic variants than would be expected by chance. This has implications for interpreting the results of studies using genome-wide data. I will use data from UK Biobank, ALSPAC mothers and fathers (N=10,107 and 2000 respectively), the Health and Retirement Study (N=15,620) and the Generation Scotland study (N=10,399).

Planned Impact

WHO WILL BENEFIT FROM THIS RESEARCH?

1. The Public

The research described in this proposal is likely to be of broad interest to the public. This research will improve our understanding about how different factors influence individuals' experiences and outcomes in schools and the workplace. This may help inform their decisions and choices.

2. Teachers and Education Professionals

Understanding how different character traits influence students' learning and development could help teachers and other education professionals, such as educational psychologists. For example, discovering which specific mechanisms cause educational outcomes may help teachers and education professionals develop effective interventions.

3. Policymakers

My research during the fellowship could inform the design of education policies, particularly early interventions and public health interventions. Thus an important audience for my findings will be organisations such as The Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF), IPPR, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Nuffield Foundation, and the Department for Education.

4. Academics in other fields

There is increasing interest in the implications of genetic data for education research (12). During this fellowship I will engage with economists, genetic epidemiologists and educationalists to translate and, crucially, to interpret the findings of genetics studies for different audiences.

HOW WILL THEY BENEFIT FROM THIS RESEARCH?

1. The Public

I have discussed the possibility of holding an event on genetics and economics as part of the Bristol Festival of Economics with its organiser, Prof. Diane Coyle. These popular events are attended by a diverse range of members of the public. I will explore the possibility of holding an event for the public as part of the Bristol and Bath Café Scientific, which is a public forum for debating cutting edge scientific research. Another avenue for disseminating the results to the public is via the University of Brisol and ESRC's Annual Thinking Futures festival. I will apply to take part in the Royal Statistical Society's Statistical Ambassadors program.

2. Teachers and Education Professionals

I will seek to disseminate the results of this research via events organised with the University of Bristol's annual Festival of Education. One of the objectives of this engagement will be to develop contacts for future translational research, such as randomised trials of interventions. During the second half of the fellowship I will spend a week-long knowledge exchange placement with the EEF to explore possible avenues for translation; please see attached letter confirming this.

3. Policymakers

I will apply to take part in the Royal Society Exchange programme. The programme pairs active researchers with senior civil servants and MPs, and provides training about how research findings can influence policy making. This will complement ongoing policy engagement undertaken by the MRC IEU. I will liaise with colleagues at PolicyBristol to respond to calls for evidence from Select Committees and the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology.

4. Academics in other fields

This proposal is inherently interdisciplinary and involves significant collaborations with a number of disciplines, including psychology, education, quantitative social science, economics, epidemiology, and statistical genetics. My findings may be particularly pertinent for education researchers designing educational interventions. To disseminate the findings and methods to this audience I will submit symposia for education conferences such as researchED. ResearchED is a conference dedicated to debating what works in education and is aimed at education researchers, policymakers and teachers. Please see the attached Pathways to Impact document for more details.
 
Description We have found evidence that education may affect health and socioeconomic outcomes in later life.

We have found that the relationship between educaiton and short sightedness is likely to be due to something to do with the educaiton process.
Exploitation Route These findings may contribute to the debate about the causal effects of education.
Sectors Education,Healthcare

URL https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-017-0279-y
 
Description Causal effects of alcohol and mental health problems on employment outcomes: Harnessing UK Biobank and linked administrative data
Amount £450,000 (GBP)
Organisation Health Foundation 
Start 03/2018 
End 02/2021
 
Description Charge consortium: gene discovery for CVD and aging phenotypes.
Amount $734,456 (USD)
Funding ID 2 R01 HL105756-07 
Organisation National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) 
Sector Public
Country United States
Start 07/2018 
End 07/2022
 
Description Incorporating genetic data to better understand the social and environmental drivers of children's outcomes
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/S011021/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 12/2019
 
Description Norweign research council fellowship
Amount kr 3,501,000 (NOK)
Organisation Research Council of Norway 
Sector Public
Country Norway
Start 03/2018 
End 02/2021
 
Description Social and economic consequences of health: causal inference methods and longitudinal, intergenerational data.
Amount £450,000 (GBP)
Organisation Health Foundation 
Start 03/2018 
End 02/2021
 
Description The Research Council of Norway Fellowship
Amount kr 3,684,000 (NOK)
Funding ID 2019097 
Organisation Research Council of Norway 
Sector Public
Country Norway
Start 03/2019 
End 02/2022
 
Description The Research Council of Norway Fellowship
Amount kr 3,501,000 (NOK)
Organisation Research Council of Norway 
Sector Public
Country Norway
Start 03/2018 
End 02/2021