From behaviour to benefit

December 17, 2011

Stephen Anderson

We reproduce here an article written by Stephen Anderson, Director of the Campaign (from Public Service Review, European Union – Issue 23)  in which he urges the use of research to better inform public policy:

It often seems to surprise us when other people don’t behave as we do or react as we expect. Our own ways of thinking and our own experiences lead us to particular viewpoints. The trouble is, other people don’t always think in the same way as we do. Their lens on the world is different because their values, motives and traits differ from our own. We are inclined to find a reaction that is not the one we were anticipating unexpected, perplexing and frustrating. It sometimes causes embarrassment or difficulty in relationships. And this is true whether at the individual, group, community or societal levels. As a result, it is often the case that new public policies – what seem like great ideas or wonderful technical fixes – don’t work because they are not aligned to the way most people behave.

Social science research discovers how people and social groups will – typically – behave in reaction to particular events, given situations or, more generally, to the behaviours of others. It allows us both to understand behaviour and predict it. This is potentially very useful to informing all our relationships because understanding is a key to reducing conflict and improving cohesion.

More broadly, social science research informs public policy initiatives and interventions. Social science research improves their efficiency and effectiveness, helping to ensure that they are tailored to what people want or how they will behave. Take the example of public initiatives to encourage healthy eating: initially they were pursued on a standalone basis. When they didn’t have much impact, it was perceived that this was due to weak wills, bad cooking habits or poor parenting. However, social scientific research was able to show that food choice is governed by a whole range of social and economic circumstances; apparently ‘unhealthy’ choices may seem quite rational in some circumstances – where ‘healthy’ food will not be eaten, for example, or simply go to waste. Policy initiatives now take broader, contextual factors into account.

Explaining behaviour
Social scientists use a range of methods and techniques to reveal the practice of social behaviour. Mostly, they comprise a mix of both quantitative and qualitative methods. The former depends on statistical analyses of data sets of sufficient size, reliability and length to provide evidence of actual behaviours. Quantitative methods therefore give definition to the picture we are trying to uncover. Qualitative methods provide the colour. They capture by surveys, discussion groups and the like the comments that tell the stories that explain the behaviour uncovered by other techniques. Finally, theories can be derived that allow us to make sense of the overall picture.

The human mind is even more complex than many of the physical or molecular structures that the natural sciences investigate. We are sometimes illogical or contrary, are prone to be inconsistent and are affected by outside conditions, such as the weather, what is happening elsewhere in our lives or those of others around us. Moreover, our views and attitudes can be changed by persuasive intellectual argument, debate and interaction with others, general mood and personal feelings, or by the passage of time itself (on average, people become more conservative with age). In short, we do not always react to a situation in the same way every time.

But, well founded social science research does provide a basis for concluding that people are likely, as a rule, to react in particular ways to particular situations. If the evidence from research is that 95 people out of 100 react in a particular way to a situation, then this gives us confidence that a policy intervention that is consonant with that reaction will be well received. Conversely, we may have to change a policy in the light of what actually works and what doesn’t if it has not incorporated the evidence of social science research.

Making an impact
In the UK, the evidence is that social science research is both excellent and relevant to informing a wide range of applications and policy interventions. However, it is not used as much as it should be in informing public policies.

So why, when we have a world-class academic community, is the impact of academic research on policymaking so poor? This is what John Denham MP asked recently, recalling his 10 years as a minister during which, he said, the impact of social science on public policy had been nowhere near as strong as it should be (address given to the Academy of Social Sciences on 20th December 2011).

And that’s the difficulty. Much good research is produced, but not nearly enough is used in practice. The personal predispositions of the researchers, unhelpful processes, prejudices and institutional barriers all combine to make the exchange of knowledge between the producers and potential users of research very difficult.

Intermediary bodies, such as the UK Academy of Social Sciences, have a key role to play in bringing people together and showcasing the research that is available to policymakers. Increasing energy and resource is being put into bridging this gap, but it is a challenging activity. Social science advances by dialogue – and that applies just as much to implementation as to the initial investigation.

Amongst other things, making the best use of social scientific research requires advocacy at the heart of government and at a sufficiently senior level to be influential with ministers, special advisers, senior officials and others close to decision-making and implementation. That is why the UK Campaign for Social Science is calling for the appointment of a Chief Social Scientific Adviser.

Social science research requires careful evaluation by officials, based on a consensus about what constitutes evidence and how quality is to be judged. Implementation is not helped by the fact that social science research – like most scientific endeavours – is inherently provisional (new evidence may emerge) and often generic, rather than related directly to specific policies and practices. All this may limit its impact on policy.

However, it is not enough for the producers of social science research to rely on their academic publications to eventually stimulate policy or societal changes. Understandably there is pressure – at a time of general fiscal restraint – from publicly funded, grant giving bodies for publicly funded research, in particular, to have an impact – both definable and measurable – over much shorter time periods.

To do this, the structures, processes and channels of communication between producers and users need to be clear, accessible and available. The willingness and processes to engage in dialogue also need to be in place.

Social value, not economic
A prevailing method in government for assessing the efficacy of policy interventions is cost-benefit analysis. Policies and programmes are reckoned to be viable or unviable in relation to the balance of their marginal costs or benefits and, if this is positive, whether the return is sufficient to pay back quickly and significantly and so merit the use of scarce resources.

This leads to a tendency to ascribe an economic value to everything. Clearly definable financial costs are one thing; ascribing values to social benefits are quite another. Thus, in the UK, for example, the investment case for high-speed rail between London and Birmingham (HS2) rests crucially on the research undertaken to assess the value to passengers of the time saved in shortening the journey between these two locations. But the social costs of environmental degradation as well as the opportunity costs of the investment need also to be taken into account. The assessment becomes very complicated, the public debate becomes more intense and the decision-making often becomes protracted or immobilised.

Another example is the case for shale gas extraction in the UK. It is now technically possible to do this, there is clear commercial opportunity, and wealth and jobs are created. There is therefore surprise when local communities are resistant and antagonistic to the enterprise because of external factors, such as environmental degradation or concerns about subsidence. To social scientists, it is also surprising – not that local resistance may arise, but that others should be surprised when it does so. This suggests that there is much for social science research to do.