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24/10/2014

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Too little science, or too much?

Tracey Brown weighs up the evidence

We’re all evidence-based now. Evidence is everywhere, thrust under our noses in support of the latest action to reduce anti-social behaviour, to reduce recidivism among prisoners on parole or introduce the HPV vaccine for girls in secondary schools. 

I recently looked at references to evidence in government statements over the previous year. When I got to over 500, I stopped counting. Now shouldn’t we all be happy and fetching our coats? Not quite.

Wading through treacle

We might have a big debate about what that evidence is and how it is derived. Indeed, those of us insisting on the use of high quality, scientific evidence have had to wade through treacle, despite all the lip service to that since the Phillips Report into the BSE crisis.

While there has been recognition of the role that evidence should play in public affairs, we have seen during those same years consultations, reports, policy announcements, and Bills that make little distinction between doubtful, self-published research results or conjecture and large-scale, controlled studies. The biggest problem in the use of science in policy seems to have been judging significance and quality rather than recognising the need to look at evidence per se.

Struggles ending

But efforts are underway to change all that. There is cross-cutting activity to review use of research and analysis in government.1 The National School of Government is now running a course for senior civil servants on the analysis and use of evidence.

The Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee are on the case too.2  So perhaps this will end the tortuous definition struggles (‘we can say that evidence is any information that Defra can use to turn its policy goals into something concrete [and] manageable’3) of some government departments.

Magic policy potion

Nor should we lose sight of the risk that scientific evidence may be seen as a magic policy potion. Rub it on and people who object to your idea won’t have a leg to stand on! You will be powerless to resist my demands to give up smoking/save the polar bear/fluoridate the water supply.

Scientists themselves are often not as careful as they should be in endorsing policy extrapolations from their work. They’re entitled to do that, but as pundits like anyone else.

There seems to have been a worrying rise in the idea that science could do the work of policy and argument. There we’ve been, chuntering on about evidence, and consequently promoting the idea that scientific evidence carries more weight than political and social arguments.

Worthless evidence

This is dangerous stuff. If we move towards evidence-based everything, where there seems to be no room for people to debate or dissent because the evidence tells them how it must be (though they may have been consulted in the ‘evidence gathering stage’ of course) scientific evidence will become so political as to be worthless.

This can only promote an atmosphere in which policy makers and campaigners see themselves as ‘commissioning evidence’ rather than ‘commissioning research’. (We may have had an experience of that at the end of 2008 when the government decided to ignore the conclusions of its advisory committee on the misuse of drugs.)

Misguided and cynical usage is likely to empty the term ‘evidence-based’ of any meaning and authority. It’s hard to discuss the idea of sound policy and the problems of particular unsound science claims without mentioning ‘evidence-based’, but I know that every time I’m using it I’m wincing that bit more. On health, safety, environment, education, crime, the evidence never says it all.

1 Analysis and Use of Evidence: Research and Analysis in Government, PU565 July 2008

2 IUSS Committee Third Report 20 January 2009

3 Defra 2006

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Tracey Brown
Tracey Brown is Director of Sense About Science
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