WHO news release: JRC and WHO join forces to use behavioural insights for public health

13 November, 2021

Joint Research Centre and World Health Organization join forces to use behavioural insights for public health

12 November 2021 Joint News Release

News release from WHO and a comment from me. Read online: https://www.who.int/news/item/12-11-2021-joint-research-centre-and-world...


The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded a Collaborative Research Arrangement that aims to mainstream behavioural insights into public health programmes and policies worldwide. Behavioural insights can help improve understanding on how and why people behave in ways that affect their health, and help design policies and services that address behavioural factors for improved physical and mental well-being.

The Commission, through the JRC, will assist WHO in expanding its behavioural insights for health programme. Both organisations will agree on specific areas of focus, which would include issues like non-communicable diseases, anti-microbial resistance and the use of behavioural insights to increase the capacity of health workforce.

JRC Director-General Stephen Quest said: “We are confident that including a strand of behavioural research in public health programmes will increase their efficiency in preventing and treating a series of health risks and diseases. We are very happy to share our experience and knowledge of integrating behavioural insights in the policy making of an international public institution, and to blend them with WHO’s experience and knowledge in applying science to public health. This agreement strengthens the tools available to tackle major public health issues worldwide.”

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, welcomed the partnership, adding: “Harnessing the power of behavioural science is vital for helping WHO achieve its mission to advance the health of all people. WHO’s collaboration with the European Commission to scale up use of behavioural science and research reflects our commitment to transforming how we work to promote health. Our partnership could not come at a better time, as behavioural challenges are affecting people’s health in many ways, from the measures we take to protect ourselves from COVID-19 to the decisions we make on nutrition, antibiotics and information we use for our health.”

This Collaborative Research Arrangement builds on the priority placed by European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen on public health. It will contribute to building the European Health Union and promoting reforms in health governance in the EU and worldwide.

The JRC’s Competence Centre on Behavioural Insights, which works to support EU policymaking with evidence on human behaviour, will drive the new collaboration.

Behavioural science at WHO

WHO initiated its Transformation process four years ago to scale up impact of its activities by making it fit for purpose and through stronger collaboration with partners. As part of this Transformation, WHO launched a new initiative to explore ways to better use behavioural evidence for policymaking and programme design across the Organization and with its Member States. The initiative has launched several projects and receives guidance by a Technical Advisory Group bringing together academic and practitioner experts from several regions around the world and disciplines related to behavioural insights.


COMMENT (NPW): As I have commented in a previous HIFA message, 'There is a tension between the persuasion of behavioural approaches (where the aim is to change behaviour) and the information/knowledge approaches (where the aim is to provide the information people need so that they can make up their own mind). There are good arguments on both sides, the two approaches overlap and elements of both are probably needed. I am reminded of the motto of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University: 'To inform, not persuade'. I think HIFA's work is largely in tune with this motto, but has a more nuanced perspective on persuasion: our work is more about meeting people's needs for reliable information than about changing people's behaviour. We recognise that meeting information needs is a prerequisite, but is not always sufficient to change behaviour (if that is one's endpoint). In the area of persuasion, there is a wide spectrum that includes (for example) explicit healthy policymaking such as taxing tobacco, through to approaches that include an element of manipulation. Plenty to discuss!'

Neil Pakenham-Walsh, HIFA Coordinator, neil@hifa.org www.hifa.org