Dr Reuben Ng: Probing public perceptions

Dr Reuben Ng from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy was a winner of the 2019 Social Science and Humanities Research (SSHR) Fellowship

Dr Reuben Ng from the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Lloyd’s Register Foundation Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk (IPUR) has several strings to his academic bow. By using innovative data analytics techniques, he can investigate solutions for successful ageing, the skills gap in Singapore, preventative health measures, and more. His pioneering methods can even examine societal perceptions and stereotypes which can then be applied to make more informed public policy decisions.

As a Fulbright Scholar and NUS alumnus, Dr Ng trained to be a social scientist, and now teaches courses on data analytics, behavioural insights, and policy innovation at NUS. He also serves on the advisory boards of organisations in finance, education and sustainability. 

Applying data analytics to an ageing population

One of Dr Ng’s key research areas concerns the topic of healthy ageing. By using data analytics techniques to examine elderly populations, his investigations have unearthed some surprising results: People who think positively about retirement living almost five years longer than those think negatively.   

“Our studies concluded that psychological preparation for retirement is linked to better retirement health and well-being. These activities include proactive conversations about one’s willingness to commit to grandparenting, negotiating a new phase of spousal relationship where a couple may see a lot more of each other, and purposeful volunteerism.” Dr Ng is working on the novel concept of ‘psychological retirement adequacy’ to provide elders with tools for their best years ahead.

Public perceptions over 200 years

The goal of understanding public perceptions is another key focus for Dr Ng. To analyse perceptions over two centuries, he devised an ingenious method to measure historic perceptions by looking at 200 years of digitised newspapers, magazines, fiction, and non-fiction, and analysing the language used. This platform that Dr Ng designed can investigate the perceptions of any topic. One of his earlier projects found that ageism has increased over 200 years and was featured in The Washington Post and CNN.  

Such platforms could even be used to see how public perception changes with regards to the current COVID-19 pandemic. “This technology could provide timely results indicating the global mood regarding coronavirus to inform the types of questions that an in-depth survey could ask,” he said.

Winner of the Social Science and Humanities Research (SSHR) Fellowship 

Dr Ng’s third key research topic, for which he won the prestigious SSHR Fellowship last year, is addressing the skills gap in Singapore. The SSHR Fellowship is part of the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) efforts to nurture local talent, and to strengthen the social science and humanities research ecosystem in Singapore. It is a grant of up to S$1 million over five years. 

“Among the multiple research goals, one of them is understand people's perceptions towards Industry 4.0, so that their needs and fears can be better addressed,” he explained. By examining public perceptions towards jobs, skills and the narratives around it, Dr Ng discovered that different societal segments hold diametrically different views.

“This underscores the need to have targeted policy communications instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, the traditionally negative message to ‘skill up or be left behind’ may motivate some but fall flat on others. Instead, a more positive framing such as ‘skill up to make a difference’ may resonate with other behavioural archetypes. In this way, we aspire to provide practitioner insights to sharpen policy implementation and communication,” he said. 

Using art to communicate research

Overall, Dr Ng is driven to make his research accessible to audiences of all kinds, and to extend the value chain of his research as much as possible. “I get excited by creating knowledge through publications and patents, and then translating them into something impactful where the public can appreciate,” he said.

An example of his research presented in an atypical way to maximise impact is the artwork ‘RiskTalk’, which historically examines the different words that have co-occurred with the word “risk”. Created in collaboration with talented colleagues from IPUR, this interactive histogram uses batik fabrics which are the coloured embodiment of Dr Ng’s analysis of millions of texts showing how risk narratives changed over time. 

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Dr Ng transformed his research findings into the artwork ‘RiskTalk’, which uses strips of batik fabric to represent the evolution of risk narratives over 200 years 

“We analysed risk narratives over 200 years, and worked with local batik artists to make the findings come alive. Rather than struggle with academic papers that are not written to be widely understood, the public can touch, feel and talk about what the science means to them,” he said.


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