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Opinion: September 2011

Not by nudge alone

Julia Neuberger discusses how to change behaviour

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has recently published its report on Behaviour Change. The report makes a range of recommendations about how the government can make best use of the evidence from the behavioural sciences and improve the evaluation of their behaviour change policies.

Julia Neuberger discusses how to change behaviour

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has recently published its report on Behaviour Change. The report makes a range of recommendations about how the government can make best use of the evidence from the behavioural sciences and improve the evaluation of their behaviour change policies.

So much of what the government does is about changing people’s behaviour, from policies on smoking and alcohol, to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, tackling obesity and crime prevention. Understanding the science behind changing behaviour is necessary for the development of effective and efficient policies across all government departments.

The nudge theory

The inquiry was driven particularly by the current government’s emphasis on ‘nudging’ people to behave differently. Nudging is about targeting the ‘automatic’ system within our brain, which is in control of our behaviour whenever we have not consciously decided to act in a certain way. It draws attention to the role of our physical and social environments in shaping our behaviour and how, often without us realising it, they exert a powerful influence over the way we behave.

Some of our witnesses welcomed the rise in popularity of nudging, arguing that it has directed the government’s attention to the fact that individuals do not always act rationally in accordance with their conscious motivations and values.

Nudges not enough

But the government cannot rely on nudging to do all the work. Perhaps the most important finding of our report is that nudges in isolation are unlikely to have a significant effect on the behaviour of the population. They simply are not strong enough. What will usually be required to achieve change is a whole raft of different measures, combining some form of regulation, or other strong disincentive, with softer policies like ‘nudges’ and persuasive marketing campaigns.

We have urged the government to take note of this because we are concerned that their emphasis on nudging may lead to a failure to consider the evidence for the effectiveness of other sorts of policy interventions in changing behaviour, including legislation and taxation. Avoiding the use of legislation and taxation when possible is a laudable aim and regulation has all too often been used when it was not needed. This cannot, however, be a reason for ignoring the evidence when it suggests that such interventions will be necessary as part of a package of measures to achieve significant behaviour change.

Examples lacking

We had some sympathy with the government when they argued that there isn’t a great deal of evidence about what works to change behaviour on a large scale to help them develop evidence-based policies. There is a great deal of basic research on how to change behaviour, and we were disappointed by the lack of concrete examples of applying this to bring about behaviour change in large groups of the population.

But this is no excuse for the failure of the government to make use of such evidence as is available. And, at present, this happens far too often.

Evaluation needed

Moreover, the lack of evidence about how to change the behaviour of populations is in part a result of inadequate evaluations of government funded and government led interventions. This sort of evaluation is critical if policies are to be both maximally effective and cost-effective. In a time of financial stringency this is more important than ever.

Understanding how human behaviour is shaped and influenced is fascinating. But, above all, it is essential for any government if they are to be successful. Our report welcomes this government’s attempts to understand behaviour better. But they must be careful that clever demonstration projects don’t get in the way of policies based on the evidence about what works.

EPSRC: has it abandoned public engagement?

Kathy Sykes hopes not

Rumours are abounding about the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) cutting its public engagement (PE) programme, and what this might imply about their commitment to PE. Some researchers, who have regularly won funding for PE, are devastated. The EPSRC PE section is, gradually, closing down, and the Societal Issues Panel (SIP) is being folded.

Kathy Sykes hopes not

Rumours are abounding about the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) cutting its public engagement (PE) programme, and what this might imply about their commitment to PE. Some researchers, who have regularly won funding for PE, are devastated. The EPSRC PE section is, gradually, closing down, and the Societal Issues Panel (SIP) is being folded.

So, has EPSRC abandoned its commitment to engaging the public? I believe, and hope, not. It is determined instead to embed PE throughout all its work. This has been the aspiration for some time. Personally, I think that funders should be trying to embed PE across their work and decision-making, and striving to find ways to represent public interests in governance procedures. For too long, PE has been a nice thing that funders do on the side, but held at arm’s length from research and strategy.

One implication of these changes is that researchers wanting funding for PE, and indeed business and policy engagement, must write ambitious, budgeted PE into their research proposals, showing how it will increase the impact of their research.

Dangers of rapid change

There are challenges, of course. Embedding and the necessary cultural shift takes time. EPSRC knows that it is making these changes rapidly. It will be important for staff across the organisation to be trained and supported in working differently, or there is a risk of losing the valuable lessons learned in doing PE effectively. Panels which assess funding applications will need to be supported and reminded to take aspects on public, business and policy engagement seriously.

Other challenges remain. How will the impact of embedding be measured, and how will EPSRC know how it is progressing? Given that many believe that EPSRC’s commitment to PE is diminishing, the organisation needs to communicate its embedding message loud and clear.

Cheaper administration

The folding of the SIP panel is in line with the folding of the two other main advisory panels: the Technical Opportunities Panel (TOP), representing academia, and the Users’ Panel (UP), representing industry. EPSRC argues that to reduce administrative costs by 30 per cent, it must simplify decision making. It claims it will be cheaper and more efficient to have people from all realms, academia, business, and societal issues, in one pool; a ‘College’, to be drawn on to tackle specific issues. This is also in line with the aspiration to embed PE.

Again, there are challenges. Making major changes in governance processes, without time for full consideration of the evidence about what good governance looks like, is risky. SIP felt that in their area, a great deal of learning and change had happened quickly, but the changes were still quite fragile. Considering societal and ethical issues around research, and identifying which emerging research areas need upstream PE, is hard to do, and is not well understood, especially by the research community. Without care, commitment and integrity from the newly formed College, and senior staff, the great strides in leadership in public engagement could be lost.

People watching

So, while TOP and UP have been disbanded, EPSRC’s Council have agreed that some kind of additional role is needed to keep an overview on societal implications and ethical impacts of research. The exact form is still under discussion. Somehow, an ethical overview, with challenge and reflection, needs to be developed and maintained.

In my experience with EPSRC over the last ten years, it has seemed a thinking organisation, capable of change. As it embarks on this rapid journey of embedding public and business engagement, many people will be watching, ready to challenge and support. I sincerely hope that EPSRC is ready to step up to the challenges. 

Baroness Neuberger
Baroness Neuberger chaired the sub-committee of the Lords Science and Technology Committee which carried out the enquiry
Kathy Sykes
Kathy Sykes is Professor of Sciences and Society at the University of Bristol
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