Living better

Evidence-based research and public reasoning

This is not to deny that financial prosperity remains vital to the quality of people's lives and the opportunities they have. One of the most obvious challenges for politicians, as for many social science researchers and academics, is to explore specific ways to improve the material circumstances of particular groups within society.

Governments do sometimes act on the evidence brought forward on the basis of rigorous research. For instance, the 2012 report on fuel poverty led by Sir John Hills FBA, Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics (LSE) demonstrated the flaws in current measurement systems and proposed new and better ways of assessing it. In response, the Department for Energy and Climate Change announced plans to find better ways of achieving ‘affordable warmth’ for low-income households, through new heating and insulation measures.

In a similar vein, the Commission on Funding of Care and Support led by the economist Sir Andrew Dilnot was a key influence on the recent government announcement for the state to cover care costs once they exceed £75,000 (from 2017). Dilnot welcomed this policy change despite the figure being set considerably higher than his report had proposed, telling the BBC’s Today programme: ‘It is a shop with no prices at the moment and you’ve got to be very, very wealthy to be comfortable in a shop where there are no prices. This should radically reduce anxiety and create a world where providers and consumers of care can plan’. Today programme, BBC Radio 4, 11 February 2013.

More on the 2011 Commission on Funding of Care and Support can be found here
The steadily ageing population is one of the biggest societal challenges of our time and has been chosen as the first topic for The British Academy Debates, a series of public discussions held in different UK centres, starting in February 2014. The aim of these debates is to set out some of the possibilities and pitfalls of public policy-making in each area, says Nicholas Stern, based on careful analysis and discussion of the key issues, concepts and options surrounding it. ‘We want them to help avoid ill thought-out, short-term policy-making, so that when decisions are made, they are made with more maturity than you find in the usual cut and thrust and sloganising. And we hope they will demonstrate the value of informed, structured public reasoning.’

Most would recognise the vital importance of both physical and mental health to people’s well-being. Many psychologists devote their careers to exploring ways to ameliorate specific mental health difficulties faced by particular groups of people – but these are not issues for psychologists alone. One notable example has been the collaboration between two British Academy Fellows, David Clark, Professor of Psychology at Oxford University and national clinical adviser at the Department of Health, and Lord Layard, founder of the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance. Drawing on their respective research expertise in psychology and economics, they campaigned successfully for the introduction of cognitive behavioural therapies that could run alongside and sometimes replace drug treatment for people with anxiety and depression. These ideas have been heavily influential in the NHS, where the development and growth of the IAPT initiative (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) now offers thousands of people more widely available and more cost-effective routes back to better health.

Similar, intensely practical concerns motivated Dame Hazel Genn FBA, Dean of the Law School at University College London (UCL) and a former lay member of the Judicial Appointments Commission. In her groundbreaking investigation Paths to Justice, H. Genn and S. Beinart, Paths to Justice, Oxford, 1999 she emphasised hitherto neglected relationships between people’s health and well-being and unresolved problems in legal disputes. A highly influential study for policy-makers in the Labour Government when it appeared in 1999, it has remained a reference point for successive ministers in thinking about the cost and effectiveness of legal services. She believes this was because it shifted the focus to ‘the impact that unresolved legal problems can have on people’s health, on social relationships, on family relationships; how having a legal problem you cannot solve can have a cascade effect, so that everything starts falling to pieces.

‘Instead of focusing on what judges, lawyers and the courts were doing, Paths to Justice flipped government thinking to ask “Hang on, what is it that people want? What do the consumers or potential consumers of the legal system want from it?” It changed the way the government thought about things.

‘What I am interested in is how the law works’, she adds. ‘Does the law do what it is supposed to do? Can people use it the way we want them to be able to? How does the law support social order? How does the law support economic activity, economic development? Might it be that the law and the justice system are as important to our nation’s health as our hospitals?’

The well-being of citizens has always been dependent on the existence of sound legal structures and courts, and the legal doctrine and theory they depend on is under constant interrogation and refinement by scholars. ‘We influence the way judges think’, Genn explains. In England, the common law is founded in the decisions of judges in individual cases: academics then seek to put it in order, framing how the law is developing on the ground. ‘Practitioners depend heavily on academic lawyers not just to write heavy-duty analysis of doctrine, but also to explain. We write practitioner texts and distil the essential principles they need to have at their fingertips in order to advise clients and argue cases in court.’