25 Waves of SOEP

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Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Krupp, Professor of Economics

Celebrating SOEP's 25th Wave in 2008

The twenty-fifth wave of the household panel SOEP is an outstanding occasion to think back on the beginnings of a longitudinal scientific project that was launched in difficult times at the beginning of the eighties. Many of those who witnessed its inception did not foresee the great scientific relevance that SOEP would achieve and that we ourselves have experienced.

It was theoretical considerations on personal income distribution and insights into the emerging potentials of electronic data processing that made clear to me the need for this kind of household panel data. With the improved possibilities for scientific analysis, I realized that a micro-longitudinal database of private households and families would be indispensable for addressing many important questions of our social development.

Actually translating such an innovative-but also expensive-project into reality requires, first and foremost, the engagement of individuals who will fight for their cause, withstand setbacks, and proceed unwaveringly. That, perhaps, was my forté. But it was also thanks to the tenacity of a young researcher, Ute Hanefeld, who made the SOEP project her very own and fought for it with continual vigor on many fronts.

And yet the SOEP project's success cannot be attributed solely to the efforts of individuals. SOEP is a compelling example of the vast potential for teamwork in scientific social and economic research. For this reason, SOEP's development was not disrupted by the changes in leadership when I moved to Hamburg to take office as Senator for Financial Affairs and Sociologist Wolfgang Zapf took over for about one year in 1988/89, or when Gert G. Wagner finally took over from him. Rather, quite the opposite was the case: Gert Wagner brought the SOEP project important new innovations and increased momentum. And when the iron curtain fell, the SOEP team in Berlin supported by the survey institute TNS Infratest in Munich was ready to launch their first additional sample in the former GDR.

The SOEP team today is proof that this spirit has been kept alive. I am thinking here particularly of Jürgen Schupp, who has been part of SOEP's staff since 1984, and Joachim R. Frick, who joined SOEP in 1989. Despite the additional burden of their service responsibilities and duties as deputy directors of the SOEP Department at DIW Berlin, they have built outstanding academic careers for themselves as renowned and respected researchers. Other members of the SOEP team have been awarded tenured professorships at universities and colleges. And today's multidisciplinary network of survey oriented scientists and researchers in and around the SOEP team extends far beyond the project's institutional and geographic bounds in downtown Berlin.

The original core group that founded SOEP was a research group (named SPES, the Latin word for hope) that later became a Collaborative Research Center of the German Research Foundation (Sonderforschungsbereich 3). It involved researchers from different disciplines and departments of the Universities of Frankfurt am Main, Mannheim, and later also Berlin. SOEP's recipe for success has not been to promote intense competition among individuals, but rather to foster cooperation. The group acquired its institutional connection to DIW Berlin through my presidency there from 1978 to 1988. The DIW ensured the SOEP project the kind of continuity no university could provide in that period. At the same time, it was only through cooperation with universities that SOEP was able to overcome the inherent (disciplinary) limitations of an economic research institute that existed even then.

Our objective was also to make use of synergies for SOEP. If public funds were to be used to collect such valuable data, we wanted to ensure that the data would be made widely available. In line with this goal, we established the policy of immediate data distribution, which has no doubt contributed significantly to SOEP's success. To this day, there still exist scholars who want to keep the data they have collected to themselves. The German Socio-Economic Panel is convincing evidence that good scholars don't need to.