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Professor Sarah Harper CBE

Director and Clore Professor of Gerontology

MA Cantab; DPhil Oxon, Fellow, University College

Sarah is Clore Professor of Gerontology at the University of Oxford, a Fellow at University College, and Director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. Sarah  was appointed a CBE for services to Demography in 2018.

Sarah served on the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology, which advises the UK Prime Minister on the scientific evidence for strategic policies and frameworks and was the  Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Currently Sarah is  Vice-Chair of the UK Research Integrity Office, a Trustee of Health Data Research UK, a Governor of the Pensions Policy Institute, and a Patron of CHASE Africa.

Sarah chaired the UK government’s Foresight Review on Ageing Populations (2014-2016) and  the Evaluation Board of the UN Active Ageing Index, and advised on the Industrial Strategy Healthy Ageing Challenge. She served on the Advisory Board, English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA).

Sarah is a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and of the Royal Anthropology Institute and holds a Royal Society for Public Health Arts and Health Research Award for her research.

Sarah has a background in anthropology and population studies and her early research focused on migration and the social implications of demographic change, using a mixed methods approach. Her current research on demographic change addresses two broad questions: the implications  of falling fertility and increasing life expectancy, and the interaction of population change with the environment.

In terms of falling fertility and increasing life expectancy, Harper’s major research achievements have concerned the role of life course factors in healthy ageing, by exploring how  social and economic drivers influence health and well-being, with a particular emphasis on life transitions. In the area of well being and later life she has explored  the impact of work-life balance on health in later life within Europe. 

A second research contribution is the analysis of eldercare in China, considering the impact of the changing dynamics of the family on physical and mental health of older adults in both rural and urban areas. This has revealed   how  cultural perceptions of gendered care impact upon subjective well-being, while morbidity and mortality rates are lower under modern gender dynamics.

A third  strong research area has been on fertility.  Combining anthropological and  quantitative analysis of  the DHS, her research has revealed that Ideal Family Size is remaining high in sub-Sahara despite education of girls. 

Sarah’s  work on population and environment has recently addressed population change in Vietnam and Myanmar and the impact of this on agricultural production, population growth and food security, and the connection between environmental awareness and fertility. Sarah served on the Scientific Advisory Board of Natural England, on the Royal Society’s Working Group on Population and Environment, and the Wellcome Trust Health Consequences of Population Change Panel. She was a member of the Royal Society Working Group on People and the Planet, and on Biodiversity. 

Her recent books include How Population Change will Transform our World  (Oxford University Press 2016/2019), Ageing Societies: risk and resilience (Routledge forthcoming), and Global Ageing (Elgar forthcoming).  Sarah is working on her next book for Cambridge University Press on Population and Environmental Change. Sarah is the founding editor of the Journal of Population Ageing and editor of the Handbook of Ageing and Public Policy (Elgar 2014/revised 2024).

Following her doctoral work in population studies at Oxford, Sarah trained with the BBC as a News and Current Affairs Reporter and Producer, working in both TV and Radio for BBC News and BBC News Night. After leaving the BBC she took up a lectureship at the University of London, and subsequently moved to the USA where she was professor in public policy at the University of Chicago. On returning to the University of Oxford she founded the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing with funding from the US National Institutes of Health.

Throughout her academic career, Sarah has combined academic research with external professional commitments. She worked with the Office of the Prime Minister and Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on the Government Ageing Strategy, with the Department of Children, Schools and Families, developing their Horizons Programme, and with the  UK Government Office of Science for their Demography Review. and on the World Economic Forum, Global Agenda Council on Ageing Societies. She was Chair of  HSBC’s  Global Ageing Forum and is a former Trustee of Third Age Employment Network.

Internationally, Sarah represented the UK on the European Science Academies’ Demographic Change in Europe Panel, served on the Council of Advisors of Population Europe, as a member of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of the Vienna Institute of Demography at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and on the Advisory Board of the World Demographic Association. Sarah represents Oxford on the Ageing and Demography Collaboration of the  International Association of Research Universities. 

Sarah was the first holder of the International Chair in Old Age Financial Security, at the University of Malaya (2009-10) and was an Advisor to the Malaysian Government, Advisor to the Singapore Government’s Third Age Council and as a Specialist Advisor for the European Commission Demographic Change Programme. She served as an International Advisor to the Swedish Academy, European Advisor to the MacArthur Foundation, Advisor on Ageing Issues to the Calouste Gulbenkian  Foundation, Lisbon  and was Global Advisor on Ageing Issues for HSBC plc.

Alongside keynotes at academic conferences, Sarah has spoken at World Economic Forums in China and Australia, presented various TED and TED linked talks and presented her work at  Nobel Prize Dialogues in Stockholm, Seoul, Tokyo and Madrid. Sarah was invited to give the Oxford-London Lecture on the subject of population change.


Current PhD students

Luca Chiaverini: Evaluating scenarios of biodiversity conservation in Southeast Asia under future land-use and socio-economic changes.

Graduated PhD Students

Burcu Ozdemir: (2017) Intergenerational Solidarity between Adult Children and Elderly Parents in Turkey.

Francesca Ghillani: (2017) Transnational communities.

Patricia O'Neill: (2014) The changing Roles and Status of Chinese daughters

Jaco Hoffman: (2012) The generational contract in Contemporary South Africa: configurations and reconfigurations in the context of HIV/AIDS

Chul Hoi Koo (2010): Reinforcement of income Inequality in Later Life: a case study of Korea (DPhil, Oxon)

Koichi Mikami (2010): Technology as a Social Process:  Cultural Theory Approach to Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine in the UK and Japan (DPhil, Oxon)

Samir K. Sinha (2008): The Sociology of Interprofessional Relations:  A Case Study of English Care Trusts (DPhil, Oxon)

Hugh Jones (1995): Community Care for Elderly People (Ph.D, London)

T Bristow (1993): Environmental Perception and Social Change, (Ph.D, London)


Links to publicly accessible reports; academic publications available on request.