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The third degree

Back page gossip from the 25 March issue of Research Fortnight

Nudge nudge

Who’s having a good crisis? Chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty have been fronting the national effort against Covid-19. Then there is the Behavioural Insights Team, otherwise known as the nudge unit.

It is believed the unit has been instrumental in advising the government that social-distancing measures, such as school closures, should not be enacted too early because the public would tire of them.

The Behavioural Insights Team was created in 2010 by the Cameron-Clegg coalition, which wanted innovative ways of influencing public behaviour. Past campaigns include organ donor registration, self-assessment tax returns and alcohol pricing. 

The company was incorporated as a private company, part-owned by the Cabinet Office in 2013. At the time of privatisation, the directors of the unit, including chief executive David Halpern, became shareholders. 

The third partner in this joint venture is the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta), which is itself a registered charity, first established in 1998 through £250 million of National Lottery funding.

The most recent set of accounts for Behavioural Insights Ltd shows a dividend of £39.53 per share was paid out in 2017-18 and a further dividend of £87.36 per share in 2018-19. Revenues for the year 2018-19 were £17.1m, up from £14.1m the year before.

The organisation carries out most of its work on behalf of the UK government—only £5.7m of revenues came from overseas subsidiary companies in the US, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand in 2018-19. The total dividend paid out last year amounted to £873,620.

Nudge staff are not bound by civil service pay grades and can earn bonuses. Last year Halpern’s total renumeration package, including pension contributions, was £144,822.

Halpern, whose PhD from the University of Cambridge was titled The Relationship Between Mental Illness and the Planned Environment, is also the “what works” adviser at the Cabinet Office, a post advertised with a day rate of £540 for one day’s work a week.

Halpern is a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) which advises Cobra, chaired by the prime minister. On 11 March Halpern told the BBC that students could be given intensive training over the Easter holidays to help look after the elderly “cocooned” in care homes.

Wash upon a star

The nudge unit is credited with the idea of singing Happy Birthday twice while people wash their hands. Patrick Vallance has said he prefers to sing Prince’s Raspberry Beret.

Vice chancellor

As the UK public started to follow government advice on social distancing, some initiated their own virtual pubs, meeting friends for a drink via video conferencing. But it was a surprise to see Jisc board member, education technology expert and vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University Liz Barnes, tweet on 20 March: “Off to the pub—not sure when I’ll be doing this again, happy Friday!” She has since deleted the tweet. Liz is wrong, don’t be like Liz.