Science limits our policy options -an event from the Institute of Ideas

5 January 2011

A very interesting debated hosted by the Institute of Ideas on evidence based policy (or the other way around?).

Speakers: Nick Dusic; Dr Evan Harris; Robin Walsh; Jeremy Webb
Chair: Tony Gilland

In every field from climate change to education, politicians increasingly defer to experts, and scientific experts in particular. The government has surrounded itself with scientists, and politicians from all parties seems keen to cite experts evidence-based findings whenever they want to push new policies, whether early intervention in families to climate-change strategies. Too often the phrase the science shows is used to close down any possibility of debate; facts are seen to trump morality and politics. But is this indicative of a new respect for science, or rather a lack or political principle? Far easier to wave a peer-reviewed research paper and proclaim the science shows we have no choice rather than trying to convince the public of the merits of one or other policy decision.
Indeed it seems that when politicians don’t go with the science, they find themselves without a leg to stand on. When the government sacked drugs advisor David Nutt last year, this was widely seen as an unwelcome and sordid intrusion of politics into questions better left to the experts. So do we live in a scientocracy, and if so, is this a sign of enlightenment and political maturity, or should we be worried about the undermining of democratic decision-making? Has there been an elision of the natural and social sciences, with the latter borrowing the authority of the former? Does the elevation of scientific expertise obscure unexamined political assumptions and orthodoxies? Indeed, is there a danger that policy-led research subtly reproduces political prejudices rather than uncovering genuinely inconvenient truths?

Nick Dusic’s presentation is particularly interested. Although keen to see evidence to inform decisions he highlights the need for the right institutions to ensure that evidence makes it to the decision-making process and accepts that evidence does not necessarily need to substitute ideology or values: they must work together in opening up the debate.

Another interesting intervention is by one of the participant who said that people (including policymakers) do not understand the scientific method. This is important. We often focus on whether there is research based evidence included in the policy decision and do not worry about whether the decision makers understand what the evidence means or where it comes from. This, in my view, is potentially quite dangerous and could lead to the dumbing down of decision makers. It is my view that it is more important for decision makers to know how to learn about something than for them to know it all. This is what, whether the reader likes it or not, was the original purpose of universities which focused on developing the capacity to think rather than the accumulation of often meaningless titles and diplomas.

In social sciences there are a great deal of contradictions in research findings and if decision makers cannot understand why this is the case and are also unable to explain it to the wider public then they are likely to cherry-pick what creates the less hassle and conforms.

So the knowledge of scientific method (or research methods) and the existence of the right institutions ought to be the focus of any attempt to promote evidence based policy -rather than the myriad of projects, trainings, websites and infomediaries that seem to be all the rage among development research funders: smarter people in a smarter system.

Anyway, an interesting debate.