The Finnish basic income experiment and the persons selected to participate in it have attracted considerable public interest. While such interest is understandable, the participants should not be approached any more than they would otherwise be in order not to distort the results of the experiment. From a research standpoint, it is clear that any other media attention also carries the risk of undermining the reliability of the results.
The Finnish basic income experiment has caught the attention of private citizens, media organisations, decision-makers and researchers, both in Finland and internationally. The media are interested in writing stories about the experiences of individual participants, while for those looking at the project from a research perspective, the main point of the experiment is to collect as much information as possible about the topics they consider important.
The level of interest shown is understandable given that the basic income experiment is an exceptional project both in Finland and internationally. It is remarkable that social science research should raise such wide interest and debate. However, from a research standpoint, the ample interest in the project may also have negative effects.
The principal objective of the recently launched basic income experiment is to study the effects of a basic income on employment patterns among the individuals selected to participate in the experiment, and to look at their behaviour in the labour market (Government Bill HE 215/2016 vp). Any other effects, such as the perceived well-being of the participants, are secondary.
As is generally the case with social science research, the topic of interest is the effect of a basic income at the population group level, not at the level of individuals.
These objectives should be kept foremost in mind when considering how to approach study participants, what kind of information to collect about them, and what results to publish during the experiment.
The effect of the basic income and the effect of the experiment are two different things
The basic income experiment is an experimental study with parallels in medical studies and field experiments conducted in other human sciences. In medicine, blinded experiments are the norm because awareness of being a participant in a study may significantly influence participants.
Field research in social sciences has shown that people are likely to react strongly to external factors such as the study being featured on the news or interactions with the organiser of the study.
For the experiment at hand this means that in order to draw conclusions about the effects of a basic income, it is necessary to minimise the impact of such external factors. Otherwise the results will to some extent reflect participation in the experiment and not the basic income as such.
Personal contacts with study participants may affect results
As we noted above, the experiment may be influenced by factors that would not exist were a basic income introduced in real life. This is a common feature in any experimental research.
A situation where external factors impact the study group but not the control group would be particularly problematic in terms of the reliability of the experiment. That could be the case for example if the media, the research community and others only reach out to the study participants.
In the basic income experiment, awareness of being the object of attention may not only influence the participants’ behaviour in the labour market and their ability to earn a living, but may also affect their perceived well-being and their attitudes towards the basic income.
Kela will not release clients’ personal details
Kela will not release personal information about its clients to the media, to researchers or to anyone else unless doing so is expressly allowed or required by law. From Kela’s perspective, the basic income is just like any other social benefit it provides. It is also not part of Kela’s statutory responsibility to forward contact requests from the media to those selected to participate in the basic income experiment.
Moreover, being charged with the implementation of the experiment, Kela must ensure that the research goals are achieved. This requires, among other things, that contacts to the study participants are well timed and appropriately limited considering the goals of the experiment.
Study data are obtained mainly from administrative registries
Studies in human sciences have found that the behaviour of research subjects is influenced by their awareness of being under observation. In a test such as the basic income experiment, this effect cannot be isolated from the real effects of the basic income.
However, the impact of factors reinforcing a sense of being under observation can be minimised. For example, personal questionnaires and interviews will not be conducted without careful consideration, and not before the experiment has ended.
The research will mainly be based on data from various administrative registries.
No results will be published during the experiment
Any results published during the experiment and the public debate surrounding them can influence the behaviour of the study participants.
A final evaluation of the effects of the basic income can only be made after a sufficiently long period of time has elapsed for the effects to become apparent. The two-year run of the experiment is not very long for changes in behaviour to materialise. The potential of the experiment, short as it is, to provide reliable results should not be undermined by reporting its effects while it is underway.
Given that the ongoing project is a social science field experiment, it is not possible to fully control for factors unrelated to the basic income as such but caused by the experiment. Still, it is crucial for the success of the experiment that researchers, the organiser as well as others should avoid any contact with the study participants which is unrelated to the research objectives or non-essential from a societal point of view. It is our hope that the media too will appreciate this perspective of the research.
Director of Government and Community Relations, Professor, Kela (Social Insurance Institution of Finland)
Special Researcher, VATT (Government Institute for Economic Research)
What is the basic income experiment all about? Watch the video!