Policy-based evidence?

Sunday 31 October, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Lecture Theatre 1

In his first appearance before the cross-party House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, universities and science minister David Willetts conceded that it is impossible to make policy solely on the basis of scientific evidence. Yet despite this, politicians today rarely make policy statements without citing ‘the evidence’. Whether it’s the Chancellor’s avowed enthusiasm for the ‘empirical evidence about how people really behave’ furnished by behavioural economics and social psychology, or Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that ‘neuroscience tells us categorically’ that government intervention is best targeted in the first three years of a child’s life, politicians seem keener than ever to cite experts’ findings. Science and politics certainly seem locked in a new embrace. Willetts himself boasts that his recent book, The Pinch, ‘drew on insights from neuroscience, evolutionary biology and game theory’. The coalition has offered a science induction for new MPs and has ‘ensured that the principles of scientific advice to government are referred to in the new ministerial code’. Of course it is to be welcomed that politicians take an interest in science, but is democracy well-served by an ‘evidence-based’ approach to decision making?

Some critics worry that politicians use the phrase ‘the evidence shows…’ to imply they have no choice but to act in a pre-determined way. Frequently ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ are deployed to trump ethics or indeed politics. Might this reflect a lack of political conviction or moral authority? At a time when politicians are more distrusted than ever, is this reliance on scientific advisers really an attempt to come up with the best solutions, or to outsource hard political questions to the ‘objective’ realm of science? Far easier to wave a peer-reviewed research paper than to convince the public politically of the merits of a contentious decision.

Should scientists be flattered at what looks to be a new found respect for their expertise and research? Or as disputes rage over apparently contradictory evidence on issues ranging from abortion to drugs, is science being treated as a political tool for ends ill suited to its remit? Might evidence be used promiscuously to back up whatever political end is required, ignoring nuances for the sake of asserting ‘proof’ that this or that scheme is incontrovertible? Certainly when experts’ arguments run counter to the government’s often predetermined policy, their research is conveniently ignored as in the case of Professor David Nutt on drugs policy, or when scientific reticence about banning mephedrone came into conflict with political pressure. Conversely, is there a danger of scientists succumbing to policy-led research, which frequently – even if semi-consciously - moulds itself around the expected outcome for desired future policy? Can we make the distinction between legitimate areas of expertise for politicians and scientists? Can science and politics collaborate without damaging both?

Listen to session audio:


David Willetts MP
Minister of State for Universities and Science; author, The Pinch: how baby boomers took their children's future - and why they should give it back

Steve Rayner
James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization; director, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, University of Oxford

Dr James Panton
head of politics, Magdalen College School, Oxford; associate lecturer in politics and philosophy, Open University; co-founder, Manifesto Club

Dr Evan Harris
campaigner for secularism in the public sphere; former science spokesman, Liberal Democrats; writer, Guardian Political Science blog

Timandra Harkness
journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, Futureproofing and other BBC Radio 4 programmes; author, Big Data: does size matter?

Produced by
Timandra Harkness journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, Futureproofing and other BBC Radio 4 programmes; author, Big Data: does size matter?
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