Our industry is dedicated to advancing our understanding of the complexity of human health as well as disease. The lionshare of that research is directed to biological, chemical, physical and now even computer science.
However, some of this complexity of health and disease doesn't lie within our bodies, but within our minds and our society. It is the reason why we have an obesity crisis and (currently) 66,122 books on weight loss for sale on Amazon (many with five stars!)
Yesterday, the Campaign for Social Science of the Academy of Social Sciences launched its report, The Health of People, which mapped out how the social sciences can improve our health. The authors conclude that "[a]ttempts to change behaviour are often based upon 'common sense', flawed assumptions about how people behave and unrealistically optimistic interpretations of limited evidence".
In other words, giving people the "right" information and expecting this to sort out behaviour is wishful thinking. It is the reason that I found around 30,000 books on weight loss on Amazon back in 2010, and why I'll probably find we hit the 100,000 mark for that category of books in 2025.
There are more complicated relationships and issues at play, and this is why the authors argued "for a more comprehensive and coherent approach to behaviour and behaviour change that takes account of the physical and social context, physical and psychological capability, and people's 'reflective' and 'automatic' motivational processes."
Social scientists have been working on these issues alongside our work on human health and addressing disease. The imperative is to bring these streams together, and this was the reason ABPI supported this research, alongside the Wellcome Trust, the British Psychological Society, Cancer Research UK and the Society for the Study of Addiction.
Our efforts mirrored the work by the Academy of Medical Sciences now published as 'Improving the health of the public by 2040'.
Independently, the two reports confirm the same core recommendations and specifically the need to establish a cross-disciplinary strategic coordinating body for health of the public research and making the most of the potential for health data to support this agenda. Professor James Wilsdon, Chair of the Campaign for Social Science, called out the importance of the symmetry of the two Academies, the Academy of Social Sciences and the Academy of Medical Sciences, working on this agenda and arriving at many of the same conclusions to the SRO audience for the launch.
This work has great value for our work in discovering and developing new medicines. It has perhaps even greater importance for the NHS and Public Health England, and the report was warmly welcome by Sir Malcolm Grant, Chair of NHS England, at the launch. Sir Malcolm argued that the NHS, as a global leader in the provision of universal healthcare, is the right health system to push the frontiers on more effective, systems-level and behavioural change to deliver better health for the British people by bringing together all of our talents and research.
What this research from the Campaign for Social Science makes clear, though, is that it's going to take more than a nudge to deliver on those recommendations.
The Campaign for Social Science (CSS) was launched in 2011 by the Academy of Social Sciences to promote social science to the UK Government and the wider public. We campaign for policies that support social science inquiry in the UK, such as the retention of large-scale longitudinal research programmes.
The Health of People is the successor report to The Business of People: The Significance of Social Science Over The Next Decade, published in 2015 as the basis of our advocacy on behalf of the social sciences and making recommendations – on research funding, social science capacity and use of expert advice by government – to maximise social science’s contribution.