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Policy Research Programme Policy Research Unit - Behavioural and Social Sciences


Published: 09 August 2022

Version: 1.0 - August 2022

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Area of Research: Behavioural and Social Sciences

Section 1: Summary of main strands/themes for research

In recent years, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has strengthened the role behavioural science plays in the development, implementation, and evaluation of health and care policy. The Behavioural and Social Sciences Research Unit will further enhance the use of behavioural science in the Department’s policy activity.

This new programme of research will be developed in close collaboration with the Department and will be sufficiently flexible to adapt to changing policy priorities and requirements. Key activities are likely to include:

  • strategic analyses of how best to apply behavioural and social sciences to the Department’s major policy areas;
  • supporting the development of policy options/solutions that are grounded in behavioural and social sciences, e.g.
    • assessing the behavioural aspects of policy implementation so that evidence-based prevention and health inequalities interventions are implemented effectively
    • identifying existing behavioural and social research evidence
    • undertaking reviews of evidence - this might involve mapping relevant policies and interventions
  • recommending broadly applicable approaches for DHSC to improve policy making and programme implementation (for example, how best to use systems mapping, and how best to engage communities in policymaking)
  • advising on policy evaluation design from a behavioural perspective;
  • advising the Department on other experts (beyond the immediate expertise of the Unit) who might need to be brought in to support thinking;
  • raising awareness of the value that a behavioural perspective can bring to policy making, e.g. by running practical workshops and organising seminars to highlight how a behavioural approach can impact on policy;
  • contributing to the wider body of knowledge and debate about the application of behavioural and social theory and techniques to improve and develop policy.

Section 2: Details of policy context and background

Over the last decade, there has been increasing interest in the behavioural and social sciences, across government. In 2018, ‘Improving people’s health: applying behavioural and social sciences’ noted that:

‘In recent years the contributions of behavioural and social sciences (including psychology, behavioural economics, sociology and anthropology) to improving the health of the public have gained more prominence. However, they are still underutilised in practice and insufficiently integrated when applied to public health, and the workforce that is qualified to provide this behavioural and social science input remains small. Complex social phenomena and the pressures and challenges imposed on individuals by the contemporary world, as well as digital innovation and system restructuring, mean that we need to enlist and learn from these sciences more thoroughly, and strengthen transdisciplinary approaches (which are problem-based and ‘person-centred’), to deliver effective and efficient change.

More recently, the World Health Organization Technical Advisory Group on behavioural insights and science for health has produced six principles of behavioural insight for health. These are:

  1. Cognitive and other psychological factors underpin human behaviour
  2. Social and cultural contexts, and accompanying norms, values, and practices, influence behaviour
  3. Environmental influences: external factors in the environment can enable or discourage healthy behaviour
  4. Behavioural evidence and theory should be used in planning, designing and implementing health policies and programmes
  5. Evaluate strategies and interventions to provide empirical evidence on what works in facilitating healthy behaviour
  6. Participatory approaches should be used in planning, designing and implementing health policies and programmes

A range of tools, including EAST and COM-B, have been developed to help policy makers and practitioners draw on behavioural science, and policy makers in Government are expected to be aware of them. This Unit will provide valuable support to the Department in applying behavioural perspectives to policy problems.

This is a broad and cross-cutting agenda. Human behaviour is an important factor in all aspects of health and care. Behavioural and social sciences can inform policy by providing evidence on the behaviours of workers in the health and social care sectors (e.g. clinicians, managers, administrators, informal carers), patients, and the public, and the interactions between them.

Section 3: Justification for research topics

Behavioural and social science expertise is needed to feed into policy making processes, from the initial discussions of policy options through to evaluation of key policies and their associated interventions. An understanding of behaviour, and behaviour change, is central to improving and protecting health, and to making clinical interactions with patients and service users as productive as possible.

The Unit’s research will inform the strategic and policy work of a range of directorates within DHSC and across government, including the recently created Office of Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID). OHID was formed to tackle health disparities across the UK, and also works to prevent health conditions developing, with the aim of reducing pressure on the health and care system.

The exact activities and topics for this Unit will be developed depending on Government priorities, and areas where a behavioural approach is judged most valuable. While the topics shown below do not necessarily represent the new unit’s work programme, they illustrate its potential to contribute to a wide range of policies:

  • Working with the PRU for Mental Health to develop practical and affordable recommendations for improving population mental health at scale
  • Applying behavioural and social science to system reform, developing evidence and approaches that can be more widely applied
  • Elective recovery: review and research major clinical pathways to specify the actors and behaviours involved, the influences on those behaviours, the existing interventions, and the gaps and opportunities for improvement. Develop approaches that can be generalised and adapted to other pathways.
  • Recommend improvements in referrals to community services and whether a triage process, such as COM-B diagnosis, can be applied in this process to better and more holistically match referrals to people’s needs and assets
  • Health protection and pandemic preparedness

This PRU will therefore inform policy by employing a wide range of skills. It will deploy expertise in behavioural and social science, and its application to health and care, to inform policies across the Department’s key priority areas. The Unit will be expected to develop links with policy and analytical teams in DHSC as well as with the other Policy Research Units when relevant.

Section 4: Other related research activity

The National Institute of Health and Care Research (NIHR) and several other funders of health research, already have significant investments in the area of behavioural science. Applicants should demonstrate their awareness of the work of other researchers in this area. A number of third-sector organisations also conduct research in behavioural science in health, and the Unit is also expected to be aware of these organisations’ work.

It will be important for the Unit to join up with relevant research and intelligence teams at arm’s length bodies, including NHS England and UKHSA where appropriate, to ensure mutual awareness of relevant research and analysis plans, and to share learning both in terms of findings and methodologies.

Section 5: Other issues relevant to this programme of research

The Department expects that a relatively high proportion of the Unit’s work will be dedicated to responsive work to address immediate Ministerial and policy requests. Potential applicants will need to demonstrate a commitment to responding quickly and effectively to such requests.