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Where should we put the ‘evidence base’ for policy?

We all know that public policies these days ‘should’ be based on evidence; but I’m not clear about when and how the full might of rational thought is best brought into the public policy arena. We seem sometimes to have mislaid the ‘politics’ part of ‘policy’, in our reliance on ‘the evidence’….

Scientists and researchers in areas where policy is being developed frequently tell us all that their evidence points this way, or that way, and I have no doubt that in their minds this is so. I don’t however recall, ever, hearing one of these very well-informed and rational observers reflect on whether the way forward they propose is actually understood or acceptable to the public who will be paying for the implementation of the policy.

It’s a cliche, but true, that politics is the art of the possible; the evidence base may be pristinely rational and logical. People, on the other hand, are not.

If we really want to see decent and well-founded changes in policy, ‘the evidence’ has to lie alongside what we can reasonably expect our policy-makers to deliver, in the pragmatic contexts of public understanding and mood.

Perhaps we should find routine ways to use ‘the evidence’ to inform real dialogue and debate, not to jump straight to policy. This is likely to happen only when more scientists and researchers start to communicate on a human level, and not just as rational-legal beings. Maybe research has to become a communicated art, as well as a science, if it’s to be really, really useful where it matters.

Perhaps scientists need (in general) to learn more about the art of communicating.

Perhaps policy-makers need to learn more about how to explain that research must actively address what at any given time is possible, as well as what’s best in an ideal, rational world.

And perhaps the rest of us have to understand that sometimes we need to move from what ‘they’ should be doing on our behalf , to what we ourselves can do to help each other see where evidence best fits into the often very human process of decision-making and change.

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