Today the House of Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee published its extensive report on behaviour change, which was reported in headline news in between yet more revelations about News International and the phone hacking scandal.
The main points reported were:
– That whilst nudging is a useful tool for changing behaviours, particularly in the health sector, it is not a substitute for government regulation – it needs to be used within a framework of more traditional legislative and financial tools;
– That the Coalition Government have been rather too keen to promote nudging as a soft, cheap alternative to more regulatory and infrastructural provisions;
– That there is not enough evidence on how behaviour change can be effective at the scale of governing whole population – it is not adequate to aggregate research findings from individuals without proper evidence of the real impacts on the population;
– That there is a need to appoint an independent Chief Social Scientist to advise government on the social effects of behaviour change initiatives, to promote behaviour change across government and to provide an evidence base of successful interventions.
The report goes much further in considering how appropriate the pilot projects of the Behavioural Insight Team might be, specifically how Government should be working with businesses and voluntary organisations, provides guidance on evaluating behaviour change interventions, and discusses the ethics of such programmes according to (a) their intrusiveness, and (b) their transparency.
This is a much welcome corrective to the apparently unbridled popularity of the behavioural sciences amongst contemporary public policy-makers. The report goes some way to questioning not only the definition of a ‘nudge’, but also the certainty of the ‘sciences of human behaviour’ (p9), and subjects the methods and evidence of behavioural scientists to critical scrutiny.
But the main question immediately raised for me is ‘what is a Social Scientist?’ What is this person going to do and will they be expected to provide definitive answers to Government’s still narrow questions around behaviour change. Will they be charged with generating their own questions? Given that there is little agreement within the Social Sciences around even what counts as true evidence and appropriate methodologies, let alone the practical and ethical bases for evaluating policy, how will the Chief Social Scientist adequately represent Social Science? With the notable exception of Professor Elizabeth Shove, it seemed that most of the academic witnesses giving evidence to this Inquiry were behavioural scientists, social psychologists, public health psychologists and medical scientists – already coming to the table with very particular epistemological and methodological assumptions about human behaviour not shared by Social Scientists across the board. So who will the Chief Social Scientist be and will they be able to ask difficult questions of value, interests and political struggle within a technocratic search for effective policy levers? I like Bent Flyvberg’s take on this – see Making Social Science Matter (2001).