Using in-survey randomized controlled trials to support future pandemic response


According to various sources the world is likely to witness another pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 in the future. How can the social and behavioral sciences contribute to a successful response? Here we conduct a cost-effectiveness analysis of an under-evaluated yet promising tool from modern social and behavioral science: the randomized controlled trial conducted in an online survey environment (“in-survey RCT”). Specifically, we analyze whether, in a pandemic context, a public health campaign that uses an in-survey RCT to pre-test two or more different message interventions — and then selects the top-performing one for their public outreach — has greater impact in expectation than a campaign which does not use this strategy. Our results are threefold. First, in-survey RCT pre-testing is plausibly cost-effective for public health campaigns with typical resources. Second, in-survey RCT pre-testing has potentially powerful returns to scale: for well-resourced campaigns, it looks highly cost-effective. Third, additional evidence for several key parameters could both confirm these patterns and further increase the cost-effectiveness of in-survey RCT pre-testing for public health campaigns. Together our results suggest in-survey RCT pre-testing can plausibly increase the impact of public health campaigns in a pandemic context and identify a research agenda to inform pandemic preparedness.

Ben Tappin
Research Fellow