Professor Susan Michie delivers AcSS Annual Lecture 2021: Society, behaviour and science in the time of pandemic: reflections on COVID-19 in the UK

The Academy of Social Sciences Annual Lecture with Susan Michie, Professor of Health Psychology at University College London’s Centre for Behaviour Change, took place online on 17 June. Professor Michie reflected on the challenges of translating and implementing scientific evidence into policy and practice, specifically looking at the relationship between behavioural science and policy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Michie delivered the lecture to an online audience of academics, policymakers and members of the general public.

Within the context of her experience providing behavioural science advice for the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and for the World Health Organization (WHO) during the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Michie spoke about the role that social science has to play in helping governments to understand how human behaviours are key to preventing and better managing pandemics. She also outlined how social science can help governments to understand, translate and implement policy, based on this scientific evidence and thinking.

According to Professor Michie, policy can only be fully effective if it is properly implemented. And social science provides not only vital evidence to inform policymaking in the first place, but crucially it also provides data-driven advice on the best ways to then implement policy that has been agreed.

Professor Michie suggested that social scientists specialising in implementation could increase the extent to which scientific evidence influences policy and practice by being involved in the scientific advisory process, working with a wide range of scientists, policy makers and practitioners.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic we have repeatedly heard about the importance of ‘Following the Science’. In her address Professor Michie highlighted several examples where the science and the data has apparently not been translated into policy and practice. For example, the tried and tested effective method for delivering test, trace and isolate systems across the world has been through local public health facilities that have local knowledge and are trusted by local communities. However, the UK Government opted for a commercial contract at national level.

For Professor Michie, the translational pathway from research to effective implementation of evidence-based policy would benefit from scientists and policy-makers working more closely and collaboratively together, so that scientists have a good understanding of the policy context and policy-makers learn about the science behind the policy.  She described the COM-B model, published in the Implementation Science journal, positing that human behaviour occurs when three main conditions are in place, namely people having the relevant capability, motivation and opportunity. In the context of the COVID-19 response, policy should have been devised with these three conditions in mind. However, in many instances, the ‘opportunity’ requirements for behaviour have been forgotten or ignored.

Professor Michie described some of the barriers faced, especially by those with lower household incomes, to getting tested and self-isolating .  She explained that research on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Care as part of its CORSAIR (COVID-19 Rapid Survey of Adherence to Interventions and Responses) study showed that only 50% of symptomatic people reported self-isolating when the estimated percentage required to reduce transmission was 80%, and furthermore a minority of people with symptoms said they got tested.

According to research conducted at Imperial College London and published in the British Medical Journal, while 87% of people surveyed across all income levels were willing to self-isolate, those with the lowest household income were 3 times less likely to be able to self-isolate and 6 times less likely to be able to work from home.  In other words, the motivation might existed, but there was an absence of an implemented policy to provide disadvantaged groups with the opportunity to self-isolate. This important nuance was perhaps not fully understood by policymakers.

The lecture ended on an upbeat note suggesting that post-pandemic we will have an opportunity to ‘build back better’.  And across the social sciences we are providing plenty of evidence showing how best we might do that.