The Mercury Project is a consortium of 100 (and counting) social and behavioral scientists and practitioners committed to identifying cost-effective and scalable interventions to build vaccination demand and information environments that promote science-based health decision-making. A key promise of the consortium is that it will produce knowledge and policy influence that is greater than the sum of its 18 constituent solution-oriented empirical research projects. While consortium teams are rigorously evaluating a portfolio of interventions that vary in settings (18 countries and multiple social media platforms), target populations, and risk/reward ratios to build vaccine demand in specific contexts, there are common features across the evaluated interventions.

In our Mercury Project Research Framework, we highlight these common features, which can support synthesis of the consortium’s findings and the wider literature and, in turn, evidence-informed decision-making to build vaccine demand. The backbone of the framework identifies four intervention designs that can be used to build vaccine demand and support science-based health decision-making. All interventions in the Mercury Project portfolio embody at least one of these designs, tailored to specific contexts. In addition, the framework identifies eight key outcomes of interest, with an emphasis on observable behavioral outcomes in real-world settings.

Through the framework, we offer a systematic way of (1) discussing the design choices of interventions being studied in and beyond the Mercury Project consortium, (2) anchoring a set of shared outcomes, and (3) synthesizing extant evidence on how we can raise vaccine demand around the world and over the life course.

Here, we briefly summarize the framework in relation to our funded projects and introduce some key ways the framework can be used by the researcher and practitioner communities to inform their work to support science-based health decision-making, including in the context of vaccination. We close with details about the framework and its development for interested readers.

Using the framework

In our research framework, we synthesize the current literature that reflects a hallmark of the research in the Mercury Project consortium: careful evaluations with strong causal inference strategies that measure behavioral outcomes, including online behavior with respect to inaccurate health information and those that spread it and/or vaccination behavior. We recently updated our framework document to reflect our five newest teams as well as the evidence base current through October 2023, including many studies by Mercury Project researchers.

Beyond stimulating and sharpening discussion through common terminology, we envision the Mercury Project research framework having utility to a variety of stakeholders, including (1) researchers (currently in and beyond our consortium), (2) decision-makers, including practitioners and policymakers, (3) norm-setting bodies, and (4) research funders. We take each in turn.

Researchers. Our framework offers three key benefits to researchers, as presented at the 2023 Vaccine Acceptance Research Network conference. Our framework allows for a way to quickly read into the literature on vaccination demand, by providing an overview of existing interventions that have been rigorously evaluated and their underlying mechanisms of action. Further, the framework provides a core set of eight outcomes we believe researchers studying vaccine demand should include in their study designs; researchers that commit to these common outcomes help support later meta-analysis and other synthetic research. Finally, our set of four intervention designs and the tactics within them provide a clear way to talk about the mechanisms of action, which can be useful in describing interventions to other researchers, as well as to practitioners, policymakers, and the media. For example, in our most recent call for proposals (now closed), we asked applicants to make use of the framework in describing their interventions.

Decision-makers. For practitioners and policymakers, in addition to an overview of existing research, the four intervention designs we offer also provide factors to diagnose the vaccine demand situation in their specific context when designing or adapting an intervention. For example, if formative research reveals that people can access accurate health information (the search costs are reasonable) but feel overwhelmed by deciding among competing sources and nuggets of information, then resources might be best-directed toward efforts to lower decision costs, such as through information literacy training, guided conversations, and decision aids. Alternatively, if people intend to get vaccines but fail to follow through, intervention resources might best be channeled toward lowering logistical barriers to getting vaccinated, including overcoming forgetfulness and lowering transportation and opportunity costs.

Norm-setting bodies. Our framework, by offering a key organizing principle for discussing different intervention designs and outcomes of interest, can also be useful for norm-setting bodies, such as the World Health Organization. In support of the passage of the resolution on “Behavioural sciences for better health” at the 76th World Health Assembly, we used our framework to make concrete recommendations on how to operationalize the resolution. Specifically, we offered our framework as a tool to (1) structure the proposed evidence repository, (2) support the proposed synthesis of studies into actionable policy recommendations for specific contexts, and (3) prioritize studies that measure effects on observable health behaviors.

Research funders. For public and private funders, through our review of the literature, we provide a picture of key areas for future investment by demonstrating on which topics rigorous work has—and has not—been done. This will help ensure that future work either deepens what is known (by exploring promising intervention designs and tactics in new contexts) or broadens the scope of knowledge (by evaluating potential tactics with relatively little rigorous evidence behind them).

Summarizing the framework

The Mercury Project Research Framework includes four intervention designs, each with associated tactics, as summarized below. These include: reducing the search costs of finding accurate information on vaccines and vaccine preventable diseases, reducing the decision costs of assessing the accuracy of vaccine information, reducing the logistical costs of acquiring a vaccination, and raising the non-health benefits, including social benefits, of being vaccinated.

⬇️ search costs for accurate information on vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases

  • Tactic SC1: Directly provide individuals with accurate vaccine information.
  • Tactic SC2: Change individuals’ information environments to increase the freely available presence of accurate information.

⬇️ the decision costs of assessing the accuracy of vaccine information

  • Tactic DC1: Deliver accurate information through already-trusted messengers.
  • Tactic DC2: Build the capacities of new trusted messengers to deliver accurate vaccine information.
  • Tactic DC3: Provide individuals with skills to more easily distinguish between accurate and inaccurate vaccine information.
  • Tactic DC4: Fact-check and label inaccurate vaccine information.
  • Tactic DC5: Support guided vaccination conversations.
  • Tactic DC6: Build information literacy and information processing skills.

⬇️ the logistical costs of acquiring a vaccination

  • Tactic LG1: Reduce the direct and opportunity costs of identifying vaccination site locations.
  • Tactic LG2: Reduce the direct and opportunity costs of making and remembering vaccination appointments.
  • Tactic LG3: Reduce the direct and opportunity costs of taking time off from work, securing childcare, and/or securing transportation to vaccination sites.
  • Tactic LG4: Offset logistical costs by framing vaccinations as valuable assets that can be lost.

⬆️ the social benefits from vaccination

  • Tactic SB1: Increasing the information available about others’ vaccination status.
  • Tactic SB2: Remind individuals about familial and social impacts of vaccination.
  • Tactic SB3: Share accurate vaccine information within social networks.

Framing the framework

One way the Mercury Project adds value over and above the individual funded studies is through collective knowledge products. At the Mercury Project’s first annual in-person convening at The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center—described here as the simultaneous pursuit of evidence and relevance—grantees, donors, and policymakers debated and distilled key components of the research framework. Participants first surveyed the interventions in the Mercury Project portfolio and then mapped each intervention into a common theoretical framework of health decision-making and behavior based on the existing scientific literature. The SSRC team then built a draft framework, which was available for review and comment by all consortium members before finalization.