Social science for
a better world

Institute in Focus

With more than 2.9 million people – 13.3 per cent of the Australian population – living below the poverty line, new approaches are necessary to address poverty, inequality and disadvantage in Australia.

Researchers at UQ’s Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR) are widening the frame of reference for studying social problems, taking inspiration from engineering, data science, design, and other disciplines.

ISSR is one of Australia’s leading social science research organisations, with a $42 million research portfolio and more than 60 applied researchers striving to make a difference. The Institute is not content to stand on the sidelines in the effort to address the nation’s most difficult policy problems.

“As social scientists, we undertake research that is relevant and translatable to society’s big questions around promoting prosperity, wellbeing, quality of life, fairness and security,” ISSR Director Professor Mark Western said.

“Our research interests are wide-ranging but our work is underpinned by a commitment to building the best possible knowledge to improve economic and social wellbeing for individuals, households and communities in Australia and internationally.”

To address the hardest questions in social and public policy, ISSR applies smart research partnerships and interdisciplinary skills with a particular focus on poverty, disadvantage and inequality in Australia.

The lifetime cost of welfare expenditure is tipped to exceed $4.8 trillion over the coming decades, with implications for both the national economy and the wellbeing of our most vulnerable Australians.

“As social scientists, we undertake research that is relevant and translatable to society’s big questions around promoting prosperity, wellbeing, quality of life, fairness and security.”

ISSR Director Professor Mark Western

The Institute hosts the ARC Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course, a $28 million initiative bringing together sociologists, psychologists, economists, data scientists and other partners to address the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage within families.

ISSR researchers are also collaborating with actuarial scientists to validate the estimated lifetime costs of Australia’s social welfare system for the Australian Government.

Inequality in Australia is increasing and particular groups of people are more likely to experience social and economic disadvantage during their lives. At ISSR, anthropologists, architects, engineers and social statisticians are working together to develop culturally appropriate design principles for social services in Indigenous communities, including design of hospitals and supportive housing. ISSR is also developing new leaders to tackle inequality internationally, with the 2017 launch of Australia’s first MicroMasters online course in leadership for global development.

ISSR’s solution-oriented approach to social science research is improving public policy and effecting change. After ISSR reviewed Queensland’s Anti-Social Behaviour Management Policy for the Queensland Mental Health Commission, the findings led to reform in the state’s approach to social housing tenants with complex needs.

The Institute has productive partnerships with state and federal governments, not-for-profit organisations and industry, and has the capacity to provide end-to-end research services, from research design to data collection, advanced analyses, and policy and program advice.

For more information about UQ’s Institute for Social Science Research, visit

Using big data to improve big social problems

Dr Cameron Parsell at the Brisbane Common Ground building in South Brisbane.

Big data is behind some of the latest insights uncovered at the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR), showcasing how innovative social sciences are changing people’s lives.

ISSR researchers are pioneering new techniques in linking administrative data to construct a more complete understanding of interactions that individuals have with the government and social services systems.

The Brisbane Common Ground (BCG) is a supportive housing project that provides people with a combination of safe accommodation and relevant support services (such as health, education and counselling services) to assist them to move out of homelessness.

“BCG Evaluation project identified that the community can save more than $13,100 per person each year by providing people suffering from chronic homelessness with access to secure, long-term housing and relevant support services,” ISSR Homelessness research group leader Dr Cameron Parsell said.

By linking datasets from a variety of public agencies, ISSR researchers were able to assess the levels of services that people accessed while homeless compared to when they were in supportive housing, leading to the discovery of the large cost savings.

“People who suffer from chronic homelessness often have complex needs relating to health, disabilities, abuse and addiction and, without support, they often use a significant number of health, policing and legal resources,” Dr Parsell said.

“When you provide these same people with access to safe housing and targeted services, they do not need to access the same level of public services."

“On average, each tenant accessed $13,100 less of community services per year, with fewer presentations to places like hospitals, emergency wards and prisons, even after factoring in the cost of the housing and linked support services.

“These savings demonstrate that it makes economic sense to provide people with affordable housing as opposed to leaving them homeless.”

Research results such as those from the BCG Evaluation, which have been gleaned from new advances in linked administrative data and analysis of big social data, have the capacity to provide policy-makers with powerful new evidence that is needed to improve people’s lives.

To learn moire about the Brisbane Common Ground Evaluation project, visit

Education critical to reducing disadvantage

ISSR is working with partners to measure factors that impact parental and student engagement in education, and that can have significant impacts on overall educational outcomes. Image courtesy of The Smith Family

Time spent in education and university attendance are some of the strongest predictors of future employment and earnings, personal health and wellbeing, and positive social outcomes. For this reason, education is a key area of focus for researchers at the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR).

ISSR Director Professor Mark Western said that in order to help reduce inequality within our society, it was critical to ensure people from all backgrounds had equal opportunities to access quality education.

“ISSR’s research in the areas of education and educational inequality aims to provide government policymakers and frontline service providers with the evidence they need to improve all individuals’ access to, and participation in, education – especially people from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Through a combination of qualitative and quantitative research, using the latest social science research methods and social statistics, ISSR researchers are able to help government and non-government partners identify strategies and develop solutions to improve educational outcomes for all Australians.

“One of our current collaborations is with The Smith Family, Australia’s largest children’s education charity. It involves helping to better understand the circumstances of socio-economically disadvantaged students and their families and, most importantly, helping to identify what factors contribute to improved educational outcomes for these students,” Professor Western said.

“Our research has identified the large number of children and young people from disadvantaged families who are living with or caring for someone who lives with health and disability issues, which can have significant impacts on their school attendance and overall educational outcomes.”

“Better understanding of the factors that impact educational outcomes for disadvantaged students is critical for the design of appropriate interventions that can better support them.”

ISSR researchers are committed to designing, testing, and evaluating interventions that aim to improve education equity in Australia. In 2016 alone, the Institute was awarded more than $1 million from the Australian Government Department of Education and Training to generate new insights into opportunity in education for Australian students.

ISSR’s continued research into the factors that contribute to increased student retention and attainment will help ensure that Australia’s ongoing investments into education equity are strategically targeted to enhance social and economic outcomes.

To learn more about how UQ is improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged children, visit

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