Kerrie Wiley, Jane Frawley, Catherine King, Nicole Batten, Katie Attwell, Maryke Steffens and Julie Leask on behalf of the Collaboration on Social Science in Immunisation
The Federal Labor government is committed to establishing what we’re calling an Australian Centres for Disease Control (ACDC)*. The Collaboration on Social Science in Immunisation (COSSI) advocates for social science to be a key structural and functional pillar of the ACDC.
Social science is the study of society and people and how they behave and influence the world. In the context of an ACDC, this means understanding how governments, society, communities, and individuals feel, think, experience, and act in relation to infectious diseases, and their prevention and control. This includes paying attention to the wide range of factors that influence or are influenced by those feelings, thoughts, experiences, and actions.
Social science is an important part of infectious disease control. Research in psychology and economics highlights that humans aren’t rational in their decision-making. Understanding how and why people make decisions is a powerful tool for designing and implementing public health interventions. This interdisciplinary field of knowledge is known as behavioural insights, and it continues to be developed and refined through social science studies of human behaviour and behaviour change.
Behavioural insights are known to improve interventions that have human behaviour at their core (e.g., a person taking a vaccine or test, a citizen boiling their drinking water, a doctor recommending or prescribing). Relatedly, communication science provides an empirical basis for public health messaging and risk communication more broadly, as well as considering how to enhance health literacy.
Understanding the needs of different cultural groups and communities is at the heart of effective infectious disease control and immunisation policy. For example, understanding the needs and priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is critical to effective and respectful engagement, and social science provides a way to include their voices in disease prevention policy and practice.
Embedding specialist health and infectious disease social science and communication science expertise in public health decision-making will enable better integration of social and behavioural data with existing epidemiological and programme data. For example, qualitative and quantitative studies of attitudes of key population groups can determine the types of information that people need from government about new vaccines. It can also guide as to where, how, and from whom they want to hear this information. Policymakers can then respond more effectively to specific issues and improve the acceptability of interventions within wide-ranging communities.
For social and behavioural data to be used well, both routinely and for responsive surge capacity in outbreaks and pandemics, an ACDC will need:
- Specialist infectious disease social science capacity to undertake research, report and interpret data as they come to hand
- Routine deployment of tools such as attitudinal surveys and qualitative studies with responsive surge capacity
- Structures that bring government, health, and academia together, ensuring that specialist infectious disease social scientists have a place at the decision-making table, and providing a clear conduit for data to reach decision-makers. This will need to include facilitators such as ethical governance and standing approval for some activities.
- Sustained, adequate funding to ensure social and communication science remain a core pillar of ACDC structure and function, and to build capacity in these areas across the Australian states and territories.
COSSI advocates strongly for social science to be a core function of the future ACDC. It must also be integrated in a way that follows best global practice. For that reason, we have initiated a scoping review of how social science is integrated into CDCs and other similar organisations around the world and aim to publish our findings by the end of 2022. We aim to ensure that the proposed structure and function of social science within an ACDC aligns with global best practice. We are also planning to interview key informants in similar global organisations to complement the scoping review with detailed insights from their experiences, thus creating a solid evidence base to inform the social science pillar of a new Australian CDC.
About COSSI: the Collaboration on Social Science and Immunisation (COSSI) is a collective of researchers, professionals working in immunisation policy and practice, and consumer representatives who work collaboratively to improve vaccine acceptance and uptake by understanding barriers and enablers of immunisation. COSSI was established by a national network of researchers in 2016, with the support of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance and the University of Sydney.
COSSI’s aim is to inform Australian immunisation policy and practice with high quality evidence from the social sciences. Its objectives are to facilitate communication and collaboration between those working in the social science of immunisation, share research and findings, and build capacity in research, evaluation, and translation.
*Editor’s note: The Labor government has committed to a singular centre, and the PHAA is referring to it as the Australian Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ACDPC).