How expanding the UK’s behavioural research capacity will benefit policymaking

Behavioural research is fragmented in the UK, but a leadership hub hopes to change this
Photo: Adobe Stock

Governments around the world are facing substantial challenges that affect the health and wellbeing of populations, the economy, the environment, and stability and security. In the UK, the Covid-19 pandemic has been followed by a deepening of the cost-of-living crisis and war in Europe, making recovery even more challenging than originally anticipated.  

Addressing these challenges or at least mitigating their effects requires a range of knowledge, skills, resources and networks, and motivation to address them. At the core of this effort is improving our understanding of human behaviour and how to enable its change across a variety of contexts. 

An expanding field 

Behavioural research is a field that has expanded and developed in recent years. It has witnessed an increased demand for its use, including by policymakers to inform their decisions and by others to inform how to translate those decisions into practice in often complex circumstances. 

Despite this growth and increased interest, behavioural research is fragmented in the UK. It is dispersed across various disciplines, topic domains and sectors, creating silos of teams, evidence and theory that hinders efficient and effective knowledge accumulation. This holds back what behavioural research can contribute to addressing the big problems facing society. Research funders are committed to changing this. 

Investment in behavioural research 

Last year UK Research and Innovation through the Economic and Social Research Council announced a major new investment to improve national capability in behavioural research.   

At the heart of this is Behavioural Research UK (BR-UK), a leadership hub that has recently been awarded £10 million funding over five years to drive interdisciplinary innovation in behavioural research to help address societal challenges.  

BR-UK is co-led by us and involves a range of behavioural researchers from diverse academic disciplines in eight UK universities [see right]

It also involves partners outside of academia including The Scottish Government, Welsh Government, government departments and agencies in Northern Ireland, the UK Health Security Agency, Public Health Wales, the Transport Research Laboratory, and Zinc, a company specializing in entrepreneurship.  

Building behavioural research capability 

BR-UK's activities are structured around Work Packages and Themes that collectively aim to deliver behavioural research capability, building on existing UKRI and other funder investments across all UK nations. 

It will also aim to generate new research findings for policy and practice that will produce research outcomes that have a direct and meaningful impact on policy and decision-making. 

On top of which, it will establish a UK-wide behavioural research network, creating a unified network building on a capability scoping study that will be conducted in the first year of the programme. 

Developing and commissioning 

At the same time, BR-UK will develop capacity and capability to enhance expertise. It will do this through training, fellowships and placements, public engagement, open access data and tools, and collaboration with other parts of ESRC's broader funding programme in behavioural research, including a doctoral training centre. 

Part of its work will also involve creating and managing a commissioning fund for other behavioural researchers beyond those directly involved in BR-UK. 

All the while, BR-UK will embed ethical considerations to prioritise equality and diversity, and best practice in research ethics. 

Behavioural insights 

An early priority for the new Hub will be to conduct several demonstration projects that provide rapid results on topics of current interest including within government. The first will examine how behavioural research was used during the Covid-19 pandemic and how this can be improved to help address future threats. 

Another will examine how conceptual frameworks linking theory and evidence can inform empirical research to investigate vehicles travelling at high speed - one of the most important variables linked to decreased safety, higher carbon emissions, worse air quality, and traffic flow breakdown. 

Environmental policies 

A further project will explore how well public support for different environmental policies transfers between countries. This will draw on a large OECD dataset involving over 17,000 people in nine countries. By comparing attitudes and behavioural responses from people in the UK (in relation to energy and transport use, circular economy and food consumption practices, for example) with those in other countries we can learn more about levers to influence behaviour change here. 

Working with government 

BR-UK team members are already working with behavioural researchers in government in all four nations. Co-investigators include civil servants and government advisers seconded from academia. These links will be strengthened by the addition of a post embedded in GO-Science.  

The hub will also set up an ‘Ask BR-UK’ function for policy colleagues and other researchers and research users. This will provide access to advice about specific issues, and tools to enable local analytical or evaluation work to be informed by behavioural research.  

An online BR-UK launch is planned for early 2024, with a regular webinar series to follow.  

Professor Linda Bauld is the Bruce and John Usher Chair of Public Health in The Usher Institute at the University of Edinburgh and chief social policy adviser to the Scottish Government. Professor Susan Michie is professor of health psychology, director of The Centre for Behaviour Change and head of The Health Psychology Research Group at University College London.


Share this page