Roberto Foa








  A consistent goal of my research has been to achieve policy impact via empirical, data-driven analysis that responds to salient public concerns and political challenges. This section summarises some of the main projects that I have spearheaded since joining the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge in 2019.

Responding to the War in Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022 has raised obvious new research questions for policy makers, commentators, and scholars of public opinion and international relations. In our work at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge, we have responded to this need through a range of new projects that have been launched in collaboration with academic colleagues, government partners, and UK and international think-tanks.

Our work at the Centre for the Future of Democracy regarding Ukraine actually predates the war, as already in 2021 we worked with YouGov to implement public opinion surveys across the region, based upon which we delivered government reports in the summer and autumn of that year to advise UK foreign relations. However following the February 2022 invasion the imperative for data-driven international relations research clearly increased. Our October 2022 Centre for the Future of Democracy report examined trends in global attitudes towards the United States, Russia and China, by harmonising data from more than 175 countries across the world. This allowed us to provide the first comprehensive snapshot of how public opinion had reacted to the invasion of Ukraine, as well as charting longer-term trends in attitudes towards democratic and authoritarian powers over time. The findings of this research have been presented to a range of policy organisations including the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), the UK Cabinet Office, the Carnegie Foundation, the Council of Europe, and members of the European Parliament, as well as being covered by international media such as the New York Times, Newsweek and Bloomberg.

Since the start of 2023, I have also been working with colleagues on a project to model public opinion trends in Russia and Ukraine throughout the war via the use of daily internet search data from Google and Yandex. This work builds on my existing journal-published research upon public sentiment in Russia, the modelling of public attitudes using internet data, and the comparative analysis of democratic decentralisation and subnational survey data in the Russian Federation. The findings of this project have been presented to a range of government departments including the UK Cabinet Office, and we continue to refine and update both the compilation code and its results.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

Beyond its immediate public health impact, the 2020-22 global coronavirus pandemic raised a number of important questions for policy-makers, including assessment of the mental health effects of lockdown measures, its long-term impact upon public attitudes to democracy, misinformation, and political trust. Together with colleagues at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy we have responded to these questions through a number of research outputs, including both peer-reviewed journal articles as well as public-facing reports.

First in collaboration with Mark Fabian and Sam Gilbert, as soon as the first UK lockdown came into effect in April 2020 we took to examining the question of its mental health consequences via the use of rigorous, high-frequency, nationally-representative data provided in partnership with YouGov Plc. Our initial Lancet preprint in May of 2020 made a significant contribution to the policy debate on this topic, by showing that lockdown measures had quite limited effects on subjective wellbeing, and that prior studies conflated the effects of mobility restrictions with those of the pandemic itself. We then published a follow-up study in PLOS One, which showed that our initial results were not only replicated during the second nationwide lockdown in the UK, but also in other countries for which we were able to estimate high-frequency time-series data using web search data.

Meanwhile, since the very start of the pandemic we have contributed to debates on democratic resilience and legitimacy in the wake of the COVID-19 challenge. This culminated in the release of our January 2022 Centre for the Future of Democracy report, which in partnership with the HUMAN Surveys Project and YouGov Plc., allowed us to examine in detail how the pandemic had affected support for democracy, political trust, and support for populist parties and politicians worldwide. Our key findings were that in spite of the pandemic's 'challenge to democracy and the spread of misinformation, it had resulted in a significant decline in support for populist movements and a corresponding restoration of trust in experts, civil servants and centrist politicians. The findings of this work were presented to key policy makers including the US State Department, the UK Cabinet Office, the United Nations, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office (FCDO), and private presentations to G20 global leaders. They have also been the subject of widespread discussion throughout international media, including stories in BloombergCadena SERChina Daily, CNBC, CNN PortugalEl díaEl IndependienteEl Mundo, El Periódico de CatalunyaEl EspañolExcélsiorExcélsior TwitterExpressoFinancial TimesForbes CentroaméricaFolha de S. PauloIl FoglioNexoLa VanguardiaRadio France InternationalReason Magazine, RTP Noticias, Spears, SpiegelSüddeutsche ZeitungSwiss InfoThe GuardianThe PrintThe Times, The Times, The WeekTSF Rádio Notícias,   and the Washington Post.

These findings have also been developed into academic journal manuscripts, several of which remain under review, and others that are published.

Rebuilding Democratic Legitimacy

The political events of the last decade, including the rise of populist parties and movements, the spread of online misinformation, affective polarisation, and the frequency of executive-legislative gridlock (e.g. in the United States in 2018-9, Italy in 2018 or the United Kingdom in late 2019), have all raised critical questions regarding the legitimacy of representative democracy, its efficacy, and its ability to redress the causes of popular discontent with mainstream politics. This is an issue that I have addressed across a wide range of academic articles on issues ranging from democratic breakdown, to authoritarian resurgence, to challenges facing transitional democracies, to the role of civil society, as well as through public reports, interviews and press articles.

In recent years, this is an issue we have tackled at the Cambridge Centre for the Future of Democracy as our first report, released in February of 2020, partnered with the HUMAN Surveys project in order to conduct a comprehensive data harmonisation exercise which allowed us to report on worldwide trends in democratic legitimacy over the course of the recent decades. While we found a declining trend overall, in contrast to simplistic accounts we also discovered regions in which the public appraisal of democratic institutions had been improving over time, together with countries in which satisfaction with democracy remains high and stable. This achieved widespread public recognition through comprehensive media coverage (e.g. articles in the BBC, Atlantic, and Politico), and led us to present this work to a wide range of policy-makers including via meetings with the OECD, the European Parliament Research Office, the Council of Europe, the House of Lords Constitution Committee, and the UK Cabinet Office.

Subsequently, our October 2020 Centre for the Future of Democracy report then examined age and generational gaps in democratic attitudes. While finding a declining intergenerational trend overall, we also discovered countries and regions which had avoided this trajectory, as well as evidence that in some contexts, populist mobilisation had reconnected younger generations with democratic politics. This work also received widespread coverage including articles in The Times, The Telegraph, The Telegraph CommentThe Guardian, The Guardian – Opinion, FT OpinionFT Opinion Global Economy, FTThe Mail, Reddit, The Independent, Reuters, ABC, Euronews, The Hill,  USA Today, Hindustan Times, Morocco World News, CNN, Yahoo news, Times Radio, BBC Radio 4, Die Presse, International, i – opinion, Metro, BBC News Day, Inverse, BBC Mandarin, BBC Turkey, BBC Czec Republic, Azonnali, Facing SouthShanghai Observer, The News Quiz (8m27s), La Vanguardia, Fintech Zoom, Atlantic Council, The MJ, as well as television, radio and podcast interviews.

In addition to public reports on global and intergenerational attitudes to democracy, together with our team at the Centre for the Future of Democracy I have delivered on both policy impact and academic publication, the latter through articles covering issues such as the application of data harmonisation to survey trends or youth and democratic politics, and the former through advisory roles to the UK Cabinet Office, British Council, and the OECD.