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Applying Research to Society

Sarah Vahed

5 minutes

Insights from Behavioural Economist & Poverty Researcher

Research offers an important means to understand and advance society, including through helping to create better policies that improve the lives of people. When and how can researchers integrate their research with society? Here we speak with Dr. Qiyan Ong (postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Economics and Business Economics at Radboud University in the Netherlands) to learn about her research exploring poverty and decision-making.

Working together with Dr. Jana Vyrastekova under the Chair of Economic Theory and Policy at Radboud University, Ong applies behavioural science and economics to understand how poverty is more than financial scarcity. Scarcity permeates the lives of the poor, from their housing environment, social relationships, and work opportunities, all of which affects their psychological functioning and decision-making. She hopes by providing insights into the lives of the poor, policies may be structured to moderate the extent of scarcity faced by those in poverty so as to give them the best chance to integrate socially and economically.

Ong’s research specifically involves evaluating policies and programs involving the poor, understanding the decision-making of social service professionals and contrasting decision-making of the poor to others with higher social economic status. She has been involved in many commissioned studies where she worked closely with policymakers and social service organizations to translate research evidence to concrete implementable policies and practices. More specifically, before joining Radboud University, she was Deputy Director of a research center specialising in social service related research in Singapore, during which time she worked extensively on interdisciplinary projects and collaborated widely with policymakers as well as non-profits. Through the Radboud Center for Decision Science, she plans to pursue similar collaborations in the Netherlands and Europe more broadly to understand what living in poverty looks like in socially inclusive societies.

To learn more about Dr. Qiyan Ong, visit:

1. What do you think research on decision-making has helped us understand about poverty?

Many people still think that poverty is the result of individual failings - as if it's something that is in your control, and that you may choose to do things in a certain way that causes poverty. But now we know through research findings in fields like psychology, cognitive science and behavioural economics, that placing people in an environment of scarcity actually greatly affects their cognitive functioning and decision-making.

2. What is an example of a project you are currently working on that helps us better understand poverty?

My research looks at the decision-making of low-income communities, spanning from their financial or employment decisions to their social network decisions. As an example, one of my projects is on understanding how social housing neighbourhoods affect the poor, which is a project that came about after interacting with low-income individuals and seeing that they spend a lot of time in their neighbourhood. This made me realize that we need to have a better understanding of how exactly housing environments affect them. Specifically, I look at the social boundaries of low-income families in their neighbourhoods and examine how and why their social relationships differ (for example, whether being housed in the same or different buildings matters). Together with social service practitioners and organisations, I am running survey and field experiments in Singapore to understand these issues better. Through this research, I hope to provide new insights on how social housing neighbourhoods can be designed to maintain community well-being and at the same time uplift the poor.

3. What is an example of a project you are working on that aims to help those living in poverty?

I am currently also studying the work and life decisions of low-wage workers. Through an innovative mobile app, my team in Singapore has collected weekly surveys from workers to understand how they have coped with lockdowns and the employment, financial and family stressors that were aggravated by COVID-19 measures. In addition to obtaining important data for us, the purpose of the app is also to provide important information to low-wage workers. Since there is a concern that lower income individuals may remain poor because they do not have good information to make better decisions, we shared career-related information through the app regularly (such as policy announcements on trainings, job search portals, and information on employment protection laws). I plan to compare app users to non-app users to find out if information transferred through the app could help lower income individuals make better job decisions.

4. What projects do you hope to work on in the future?

I'm interested in any project that reveals important challenges that low-income individuals are facing. I would love to engage in social housing research in the Netherlands. For example, I would like to know more about how the Dutch social housing system works to improve the prospects of low-income residents. But there are also many other interesting things that I think would help us understand the effects of poverty more fully. For example, we are currently developing a project to explore how low-income workers in the Netherlands make decisions in response to wage policies.

5. Why do you think it is important to apply your research to policy and society?

From my experience, different stakeholders have different strengths. Policymakers are able to create the social and physical environment for the poor, while social service practitioners engage with these people on a day-to-day basis; they see what they struggle with and help them to cope with the challenges. In order to have sustained change, policymakers and practitioners must engage. I see part of the role of a researcher is to bridge the conversation between the two. As a behavioural economist working in the area of social services, I think I’m in a unique position to link the practice lens with the policy lens so that policymakers see experiences in the field and understand how their policies can shape those experiences.

6. What advice would you have for researchers who want to get more involved in applying their findings to policy and society?

One of the interesting things about what I've learned from research is that actual experience matters. I used to be an economist who had never met the subject I was studying (except students in lab experiments). In this sense, the people we study can be seen as only a concept; we know very little about what they experience in their lives. When I started running my own field studies and surveys and got to hear the stories of my participants, it changed the way I thought about those living in poverty. If I were to give advice to students or early researchers studying poverty, it is to try understand who you are studying, including by getting actual experiences with them. The easiest way is to begin is to engage with some social services, for example volunteering with government agencies or NGOs. It also helps to engage with different stakeholders as they have different priorities for the same problem. By listening to different stakeholders, we could find the gaps in views and help to bridge those gaps with research.

My understanding of poverty has also benefited greatly from working in interdisciplinary teams with policymakers. To find the best ways to help the poor, not only do we need to understand the causes of poverty, but we also must study the type, scalability, sustainability and limitations of policies and programs, while maintaining the balance between addressing the needs of those in poverty and the wider population. A multidisciplinary research team works together to digest many of these views and needs before providing solutions, and this usually leads to more holistic solutions.

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