As a former politician and as a student of psychology, I continue to be surprised by the dearth of interplay between leading edge developments in the social sciences and decision-making in government, despite the vast potential payoffs in forging links between theory and practice.
It is not that the work of connecting research and policy is never done, but rather that it languishes amongst scholars and researchers.
It is my belief that the social sciences should be at the heart of good public policy - but often they are not. In fact, many policy makers assume they know, because they are human and live in society, all that they need to know about human society and behaviour. Or they assume that economic theory will provide all the critical insights necessary to underpin effective policy.
A moment's thought should make it clear that success in addressing complex social problems requires, at least, a rudimentary understanding of human behaviour and cognition, not to mention the biological and social forces which shape us.
The effectiveness of legislation, sanctions, incentives and persuasive communication which form the traditional basis of public policy is often curtailed by the poor understanding of the fundamentals of human psychology incorporated in those policies.
While nearly all public policy rests on assumptions about human behaviour, these are rarely made explicit or tested against the available evidence. And sometimes they are simply wrong.
It would seem desirable to develop closer ties between social scientists and ‘end-users' concerned with human behaviour, although this is made difficult by the fact that few politicians in Australia have any tertiary-level science training and more than a few have only a peripheral interest in policy development.
A recent example of policy makers' blindness to the importance of understanding human behaviour illustrates my point - climate change. No sustained reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or adaptation to a changing climate can be achieved without understanding and accommodating our habitual patterns of behaviour and thinking.
Whether it is understanding the basis of climate change policy, modifying our transport use, rates of reproduction, energy use, patterns of settlement, food consumption and the design of our homes or accepting higher prices for some products and services, there is no doubt that, just as human behaviour lies as the root of the problem, so it is a major part of the solution.
Policy makers need a better understanding of how people perceive and experience climate change, how they judge risk and which modifications to human systems people are more likely to accept and adapt to.
For example, climate-friendly behaviour may be induced by appealing to social norms which increase the likelihood of such behaviour rather than by trying to change people's attitudes.
Many of the challenges we face result from conditions that could be prevented or mitigated by social change policies built on an accurate understanding of behaviour: illiteracy, environmental degradation, violence, inadequate understanding of and adherence to health regimes, failure to save, workplace stress and poor productivity, to name a few. In all these cases the public's acceptance of such policies, including their judgements about fairness and efficacy, are critical to their success.
Translating research findings into terms that are relevant to good policy development is not easy; and many researchers may not be interested in the task.
But the key is building close collaborative relationships between knowledge ‘users' and research ‘providers' so each can better understand the other's domain.
This does not mean arguing about some arid distinction between pure and applied research. Rather, it means engaging in a dialogue that allows policy makers to better understand human behaviour and researchers to appreciate the need for quality data to underpin public policy.
Winthrop Professor Carmen Lawrence
UWA School of Psychology (former Labor Premier of WA and federal politician)
- UWA News 18 October 2010