To the British Academy #BASAGE11 last Monday night for a fascinating panel debate on the question:
“How can Social Scientists and Government work together to strengthen public trust in scientific evidence?”
The question itself came in for considerable scrutiny, not surprising given the setting, and the debate focused closely on the question of evidence-based policy. Evan Davis chaired the evening.
I comment in this post because I think it is of current interest as we seek to help politicians develop effective policies in Local Government. Such activity is taking place in challenging circumstances where timely intervention and cost effective impact is of the essence.
The presentations highlighted some interesting tensions because the trust required to implement evidence-based policy making is not often direct public trust. It is political trust or government official trust sometimes and media trust almost always. Yet this was barely explored as I explain below.
As Jenny Dibden observed, what is needed to gain trust is a simple and sometimes simplistic expression of complex arguments and nuance. Yet the idea of a factual result from social research evidence is problematic because it results from a research question which itself is set in a social and political context.
Anthony Heath suggested that research for policy is unique because it is atheoretical and apolitical. I am certain that he is wrong. Where carried out within government, it may aim to be party politically neutral, but it emanates from within a civil service culture with its own political relationships and theoretical tensions.
Where research is carried out for political parties, or where perhaps policy draws on work by think tanks, it is most certainly going to have a view, no matter how ethically sound its execution. This brings us to the underlying purpose of policy research, do we believe it is there to direct policy formulation or guide its implementation?
Julian Huppert put this tension succinctly when he observed that any self-respecting academic will reject a hypothesis, but for a politician that’s a U-turn. As an MP with a background in science, he also thought that natural science and social science evidence and research are not so very far apart, in that they are almost equally imperfect! He was interested to consider whether what was really required was a trust in evidence in policy-making or was it rather a need for a way of dealing with nuance?
Alice Bell spoke of the importance of developing good communication of evidence and analysis, and the growing trend towards open data and networked wiki-research. For public policy research this presents huge opportunities to develop understanding where methodologies can be developed to change people from being research subjects to action research participants.
What struck me about the session was a lack of political analysis, exploration of the social science economy or discussion of its discourse. It seems obvious to me that the media are a key element in this equation, yet there was little discussion of either good or bad media interventions.
Clearly, the notion that policy can simply be developed by induction from neutral data is naïve, ‘what matters is what works’ is not a policy foundation, it is a sound-bite. It becomes a basis for policy when accompanied by ‘to achieve X instead of Y’. There is a policy process, the term in itself anticipates a debate.
The seductive aura of evidence-based policy is that it sounds like fact-based policy. However life is not like that because it is uncertain and requires the development of skill in policy judgement and the ability to engage in policy debate.
So my question would be how do we encourage good research based policy which is built upon effective engagement from the start with the public, politics and the media, whilst honestly acknowledging a tendentious stance?