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How to increase the relevance and use of social and behavioural science


post on the London School of Economics Impact Blog outlined why it is unrealistic for academic research to drive policy change. Yet social and behavioural research can help solve real world problems and contribute to public value. There are evidence-based lessons from successful case studies for policy-makers and university researchers who want to increase its relevance and use.

At a glance

In a paper for the Justice Evaluation Journal, Mark Western (University of Queensland) presents three successful cases where social and behavioural sciences have contributed solutions to policy problems. These ranged from improving school attendance to building new industries to supporting Indigenous people in remote regions to addressing antisocial behaviour among public housing tenants.

Doing so required effective partnerships between university and non-university actors which focused on partner-engaged, solution-oriented research.

Case 1: Using third-party policing to improve school attendance

The problem:  Academic school achievement depends heavily on school attendance with little evidence of any safe threshold of school absence. In Queensland, parents or guardians of students with high levels of unauthorized school absences face an escalating series of government responses culminating in prosecution and fines. Children from poor families are disproportionately at risk

The solution: The Ability School Engagement Program is a partnership between researchers, Queensland Police Service and the Queensland Education Department to co-design and implement an intervention that:

  • explained the legal escalation framework to the truants and their parents
  • raised awareness of the truancy laws
  • empowered participants to willingly re-engage with school
  • increased their school attendance.

The intervention was implemented via family conferencing, using a randomised field trial. The control condition was business-as-usual. Trial results showed that the program reduced official and self-reported truancy, assisted students to attend school and improved school attendance perceptions and behaviour.

The program also contributed to the knowledge base for third-party policing by showing police can forge productive partnerships with third parties. This occurred with police collaborating with partners rather than coercing them.

Case 2: Building new industries to support Indigenous people in remote regions

The problem: Spinifex is 69 species of native Australian grasses found in regional and remote Australia, spanning over one quarter of the continent. Spinifex currently has no significant commercial use.

The solution: A research team including an architect-anthropologist, an architectural scientist, a nano-bio-engineer/material scientist, a botanist, a botanist-ecologist and an Aboriginal partner started a project using western science and Indigenous knowledge to identify the properties and technology potential of spinifex grass.

The project has yielded new information about the anthropology of traditional Indigenous spinifex uses. Spinifex has properties that make it suitable for commercial applications including compounded rubber, paper and packaging and renewable carbon fibres.

An agreement between the University and the Aboriginal Corporation created an institutional framework for spinifex commercialisation that may help establish viable Aboriginal-owned industries in remote Australia. The research agreement also shows how to build effective research and commercial partnerships between Aboriginal people and western organisations like universities.

Case 3: Addressing antisocial behaviour among public housing tenants

The problem: In 2013, Queensland introduced a three strikes antisocial behaviour policy for tenants living in public housing. Households receiving three strikes in 12 months could be evicted. Tenants could also be evicted for “dangerous and severe actions” such as seriously damaging the property or being charged by police for injuring a neighbour.

In the year after the policy was introduced, 2.5% of households received a strike with nearly two-thirds for disruptive behaviour. In the two years after the policy’s introduction the annual eviction rate more than tripled.

The solution: The state government commissioned a study of the policy’s implementation, its effectiveness and its impact on tenants.

The research found the policy did not appropriately account for public housing tenants with mental health and substance misuse problems. It was therefore likely ineffective in reducing antisocial behaviour. The research also suggested how to improve the policy recommending specific changes to the three strikes policy, public housing policy and closer integration with other agencies such as the state health department. The state accepted and supported all recommendations.

Lessons for encouraging more solution-oriented social and behavioural science

These three examples are successful applications of solution-oriented social and behavioural science. They are successful because they achieve outcomes: new research findings, policy and practice changes, economic opportunities and better understanding of research-policy linkages. They are also distinctive because they were explicitly designed to realise practical, “extra-academic” outcomes as well as standard research outcomes and outputs.

Effective partnerships between university and non-university actors underpin the cases.  Partnerships in which university researchers work directly on practical problem increase the likelihood that research solutions will be adopted over more passive strategies that assume that if researchers produce relevant research others will take it up.

Partner-engaged, solution-oriented research can be initiated by research sponsors outside universities. The non-university organisation defines the problem to be solved and provides funding along with appropriate accountabilities to ensure progress towards the solution. This is a mission-driven “connected science” model that specifically links funding to an end product.

It contrasts with supporting investigator-initiated research which assumes findings will be applied to practical problems and translated to policy and practice.

Lessons for policy makers

The connected model of research investment is a starting point for policy makers and others who want to directly engage university researchers on solutions. Policy makers can also recognise and communicate the value of solving practical problems to university researchers. Many want to produce work that is relevant beyond the academy but university reward systems can work against this interest. Partners who can align project outputs with researchers’ incentives and realise other concrete benefits will find it easier to enlist researchers in their projects.

The bottom line

Solution-oriented social and behavioural science built on partnerships has the potential to:

  • benefit science and reinvigorate research fields
  • improve the quality of policy and program solutions
  • democratize research and benefit stakeholder communities
  • improve returns on research investment
  • contribute to public value.

Want to read more?

How to increase the relevance and use of social and behavioral science: Lessons for policy-makers, researchers and others – Mark Western, Justice Evaluation Journal, Volume 2 2019 – Issue 1

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