Putting the People in Policy

Janetta Lun
Jul 27, 2014

One perk of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship is the opportunity to learn about other fellows’ various scientific backgrounds and expertise. During the fellowship, fellows have the opportunity to start and/or join affinity groups which function as a place to meet and discuss issues in particular areas of science and policy. Even within these affinity groups we have a variety of scientific backgrounds. For example, in the Social Science Affinity Group, we have representatives from anthropology, economics, history, sociology, psychology, meteorology, neuroscience, and more. Although the members of this group hail from diverse disciplines, there is one common thread that links us together -- an eye toward the human nature of policy and policymaking. Our shared perspective also allows us to share our concerns about the debates and arguments that question the value of social science research inside and outside of the policy world.

Many policies involve regulating human behavior and decisions. Issues like smoking, disease prevention, energy consumption, and recovery from natural disasters all involve policies that influence people’s actions. Making policy without understanding how individuals and organizations think and behave is like trying to combat childhood obesity by getting people to hand out fruit instead of candy on Halloween, an action that shows little understanding of the problem it is trying to address. Policies won't work without incorporating insights from the social sciences.

Policies and programs often promote a certain behavior or choices by offering monetary incentives with the assumption that people respond to monetary gains and loss. This, however, does not always work. For instances, retirement saving programs that literally put money in people’s pocket (e.g., employer matching programs) do little to help people save money when the enrollment process is time consuming [1]. Another example can be found in how a community tried to address attic energy loss. It was found that providing a nearly full government subsidy for insulating attics to improve energy efficiency was not as effective as offering a combined service that included attic cleaning and donation of unwanted goods - even at a higher end-cost to the consumer [2]. Simply giving people the right information is often just as ineffective at stopping them from engaging in behavior that hurts them. This is most evident in the case of the education campaign around quitting cigarette smoking.

Using rigorous scientific methods, social scientists have developed innovative tools to study factors that drive human decision and behavior (e.g., motivations, attitudes, sociological dynamics, and historical contexts), and they can provide evidence-based solutions to pressing policy issues. The effectiveness of policy can be greatly improved when social sciences and other disciplines work together and move beyond the futile distinction between “hard” and “soft” sciences. Take adaptation to climate change for example. Creating a climate-resilient community is not only about improved forecasting of storms and engineering buildings and roads that are more resilient to climate effects. It is also about understanding how people’s perception of risk influence their decisions before, during and after emergencies, such as whether to stay in a locale or how to rebuild the community.

The AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship is a unique opportunity to gain skills and cultivate these kinds of interdisciplinary approaches. The Social Science Affinity Group is committed to facilitating such efforts. For example, we host a regular “Ask a Social Scientist” happy hour where fellows with or without social science background can seek social science perspectives on a problem or issue on which they are working. We will continue this tradition in the coming year and organize other activities to help cultivate and sustain an interdisciplinary culture. We also want to expand our network and outreach beyond the fellowship. 

Come join us!

1. Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. New York, USA: Penguin.
2. U.K. Cabinet Office Behavioral Insight Team (2011). Behavioral changes and energy use. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/fil...

Janetta Lun

'Putting the People in Policy' was co-authored with Katharina Anton-Erxleben, Cristina Bradatan, Beth Duckles, and Lynlee Tanner Stapleton. Janetta is currently at the Office of Program, Policy and Management at the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID. Her role is to facilitate the implementation of the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security at USAID.


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

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