Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Nudge Effect

When David Cameron and Nick Clegg stumbled, blinking, into power in 2010 they issued The Coalition: Our programme for government, which tried to identify the common ground that existed between their two parties. “We are both committed to turning old thinking on its head and developing new approaches to government. For years...there has been the assumption that central government can only change people’s behaviour through rules and regulations. Our government will be a much smarter one, shunning the bureaucratic levers of the past and finding intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves.”

This idea came from a book written by Richard Thaler, an economist at the University of Chicago, and Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School. Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness was a little like Freakonomics before it: a popular, counterintuitive take on the behavioural psychology that underlies the apparently rational choices we make.

“Nudge”, explained Thaler and Sunstein “is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

Nudge came to mind again recently because the University of Kent has just published its Institutional Plan. Like all publicly funded higher education institutions, the university has to set out its intentions every five years and submit these to the Higher Education Funding Council for Emgland. This time, on the back of Kent’s good Research Excellence Framework results and the positive afterglow of its 50th anniversary celebrations, the university proposed ambitious targets for research, including doubling its research income.

While I welcome this ambition, it did ring alarm bells. Not because I don’t think it’s achievable (I do), but because I feared that the ‘bureaucratic levers of the past’ may be brought to bear again in an attempt to achieve the target, particularly if departments decide to pass this target on to individual academics.

In June, the Times Higher Education, using a freedom of information request, discovered that one in six universities had such individual targets. This is disturbing, given the suicide of Imperial professor Stefan Grimm in 2014, and the subsequent discovery that he was viewed by his department as “struggling to fulfil the metrics” and that “serious consideration [was being given] as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a professor at Imperial College.”

Jenny Pickerill, a professor at the University of Sheffield was interviewed by the THE at the time. “To require staff to submit grants is one thing: to hold them to targets of securing funds is to reward the lucky and unproductively pressure the rest,” she said. I would go further still, and suggest that demanding that staff submit applications could also unproductively pressure academics, and lead to perverse behaviours.

As well as affecting individuals, setting such targets has a corrosive effect on morale more broadly, and endangers the very collegiate, exploratory culture that is one of the most precious facets of a university. An anonymous professor at Queen’s University Belfast was quoted by the THE as saying that low morale was being exacerbated by the “crude management approach”.

“Research success is best served in a collegial environment with colleagues collaborating and encouraging each other...setting unreasonable and crude income targets that individuals must meet creates an atmosphere of competition and fear that will be counterproductive and very difficult to overcome,” the professor said.

This could put university managers in an invidious position. They either poison the well by demanding individual targets, or they lose out to those who are more ruthless in doing so. But it doesn’t have to be so binary. I believe that that there are other alternatives, and that the ‘soft paternalism’ of Thaler and Sunstein could and should play an important part in this.

How would this work in practice? Ideally, the success of colleagues would act as the spur, the nudge, to applying for funding. Not only that, but seeing the benefit of internal peer review would make applicants positively want to put their proposals through the same process. In neither case should we need to impose either action; rather, the desire to reap the same benefits would make it inevitable.

In a small way I’ve already started adopting some principles from this. For instance, in our newsletter I now list all of those who have received an award in the preceding term, regardless of size. This acts as both a recognition of success, and a notice for those who haven’t thought about applying. I supplement this with more detailed interviews with those investigators who have had a succession of grants, who can speak about the benefits that funding has had for them and their careers. I hope to trumpet these further with news screens in the main reception to the university, in the registry, and posters highlighting achievements.

In addition I instigated a Research Prizes scheme, to recognise those who have performed exceptionally well, and I hope that some of them will join the newly formed peer-review college, which will both help colleagues in preparing applications, but will also act as a council of wise men and women to inform senior management on issues of research policy.

For me, it is about changing the environment, expectations and aspirations. Like Philip Moriarty, a professor at the University of Nottingham, I believe that the vast majority of academics are hard-working and highly motivated. They should be supported and encouraged in their endeavours, and should work to their strengths, rather than all being given artificial targets to fulfil. Nudge would provide a framework that would allow them to do this, at the same time as giving the management what they want. We can increase research income while retaining an esprit de corps. The only question is whether it would do so in the tight and somewhat artificial timeframe created by the deadline of an institutional plan.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in January 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

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