Friday, 18 January 2013

'Evidence-based policy': a very British debate

Yesterday, the writer and academic Jon Agar invited his twitter followers to guess the source of the following quote, calling for evidence-based policy:
"At government by knowledge, with the nature of things the only social force"
Rather surprisingly (for me anyway) it turned out that the writer of this sentence was none other than the nineteenth century French writer Victor Hugo, in his celebrated work 'Les Miserables'. However, whilst this quote shows that there is nothing very new or peculiar about calls for government policy to be rigorously based on evidence; I think it is nonetheless important to recognise that there is a very particular historical and cultural context within which current debates about evidence-based policy in the UK are situated.

I have been thinking a lot about evidence-based policy lately, partly because I attended two of the excellent 'Future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall' seminars, jointly organised by Sciencewise, the Institute for Government, the Alliance for Useful Evidence, the Centre for Science & Policy and SPRU. Following the discussions at these seminars, and their accompanying twitter feeds, it became clear to me that evidence-based policy has been placed firmly back on the government agenda and has become a key obsession for policy types. Which got me thinking: where did it come from? why here? why now?

One very obvious source of such arguments is the doctor and science writer Ben Goldacre, whose 'Bad Science' column in the Guardian and spin-out books make him one of the most trusted and accessible champions of science in the country. Goldacre recently recorded a programme on the topic of evidence-based policy for Radio 4 (which you can listen to here); and his calls for the rolling out of Randomised Controlled Trials (seen as among the most rigorous of evidence-gathering methods) beyond medicine into policy domains like education have been increasingly supported by other science advocates and policy-makers (for an excellent discussion of RCTs in policy see this post over on the Involve blog by Emily Dawson). Another voice prominent in bringing arguments for evidence-based policy back to the fore, has been Mark Henderson, a science writer who is now director of communications at the Wellcome Trust. Despite only being published in May 2012, his book, 'The Geek Manifesto', calling for greater involvement of scientists or 'geeks' in government and policy-processes has been widely read and debated by academics and policy-makers. Indeed the influence of some of his arguments was evident at the second of the four policy seminars. [I think enough has been written on the internet about Brian Cox and Robin Ince's edited Christmas issue of the New Statesman, so it suffices to say that this debate might fit with the trends discussed above].

But this in itself doesn't explain why Goldacre and Henderson were compelled to make such arguments in the first place, or why they have had such an influence on current debates. Earlier calls for evidence-based policy in the UK were associated with the Blair government, which started in 1997, and the rise of New Labour. This move has been interpreted, in part, as an attempt to move away from accusations of 'Tory sleaze', which had plagued John Major's government, and to bring about a more modern mode of policy-making which was not led by ideology. From a science studies perspective we could also speculate that the emerging focus on evidence in policy was in part a recognition of the failures of expert authority in the food health crises of the 1990s - though this crisis of authority also continued through the Labour government, for example through debates around GM. So the silver bullet of evidence-based policy promised to free government's from their ideological biases in policy-making by using the best and most up-to-date evidence to decide on the best policy intervention, whilst also shoring up the legitimacy and authority of the experts and policy-makers. It could be argued that the more recent scandal over MP expenses and the financial crisis have undermined government authority in a similar way, prompting a return to calls for evidence-based policy again as a way of improving the legitimacy of policy-makers .

Outgoing Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington
One of the main ways in which this earlier interest in evidence-based policy influenced government was in the creation of Chief Scientific Advisers, which began to be rolled out across UK government departments in 2002 and which are now in place in every department (see this commentary in nature by Rob Doubleday and James Wilsdon for a more detailed account of these developments). So one possible reason for the resurgence in arguments for evidence-based policy is that people are starting to evaluate these earlier initiatives and consider whether they have lived up to their promise. Doubleday and Wilsdon suggest that the CSA role has been conceived of unnecessarily narrowly, assuming that science should be insulated from policy and with a limited conception of what counts as evidence for policy. At the second policy seminar, Geoff Mulgan, the director of NESTA, suggested that the government should be prioritising individuals with networking skills and who can deal with multiple kinds and sources of evidence for the CSA role, rather than only attempting to recruit respected members of the Royal Society. Yet, as Doubleday and Wilsdon point out, drawing on the work of Sheila Jasanoff, it is a peculiarity of British political culture to place trust in individual experts with a long track record of public service, rather than valuing the skills that Mulgan suggests. Another aspect of British political culture which Sheila Jasanoff highlights is the consistent recourse to common-sense feet-on-the-ground empiricism, which prizes practical problem-solving, experience and hard evidence. This disposition was also very evident in the policy seminars I attended, and might help to explain why the desire to promote 'evidence-based policy' has been so durable.

Though this wasn't openly expressed in any of the policy seminars I attended nor mentioned by Henderson, I wondered whether anxiety about the role of scientific advice and evidence in policy has been heightened by recent changes and reorganisations in Government which have led to the dissolution of once-respected advisory bodies like the Sustainable Development Commission or the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, or the scaling down of others, such as the Food Standards Agency. The other aspect of changes in Government which is having a significant effect is the reduction in departmental budgets for research, staff and policy-interventions. This anxiety has already led organisations like the Campaign for Science and Engineering to speak out in defence of research budgets, but anxiety remains about the impacts these changes will have on policy-making and the civil service.

As we prepare for further changes in the civil service to be rolled out and for a new Government Chief Scientific Advisor to take up his post, the debate about the role of evidence and advice looks sure to continue for a long time to come, in a particularly British way.


  1. Not sure you are quite getting the shift by this Government away from evidence based approaches, which is motivating a number of organisations you mentioned to lobby for evidence based approaches. Look at Grayling in Criminal Justice contracts pushing ahead with Payment By Results without the evidence to support these approaches.
    Victor Hugo was 19th century - Les Miserables would have looked rather different!

    1. Thanks for your comment Hilary. I agree that this post doesn't give the full story. Interestingly, at the second of the four policy seminars that I mentioned, several people mentioned the new trend towards Payment By Results as something which could potentially promote a culture where evidence in policy is used more effectively. I'm not sure I have much sympathy for that standpoint, but it is interesting that there is even disagreement in how we assess the evidence about evidence.

      I guess I was also trying to emphasise that in different political cultures the response of similar organisations would have been slightly different, e.g. to push for more deliberation between all interested parties (Germany) or for the public interrogation of more expert witnesses (US), instead of the push for 'evidence-based policy' which seems to us in the UK to be the sensible response.

      [P.S. thanks for correction re dates!]

  2. Thank you for this post, which puts some context around the recent debates. I wonder also that there may be another factor involved as well? After the 2010 election, there was the real threat that the government would slash research funding. In response, the science community was mobilised and the government back-tracked partially on their initial spending plans. Perhaps because so many scientists got involved in politics during this campaign has led to greater, continued engagement with policy makers across many issues? Suddenly, science had a stronger voice and was worth listening to.

    I think we must also reflect on the greater impact science is currently having in the media and culturally. For example, in 2004 the BBC was happy to state "The BBC will not show the [Royal Institution Christmas] lectures again, because it feels the broadcasting environment has moved on in the last four years." Now it not only showed this years lectures but is broadcasting a number of other science programmes, even on its Children's channels.

    1. Thanks for your comment Alasdair, you raise some very interesting points.

      I agree with you that the mobilisation around threatened research budget cuts may indeed have led to more scientists or 'geeks' wanting to engage with policy - and this is similar to what Henderson argues in the Geek manifesto. But what I was trying to do in this post was also to consider why this mobilisation was so successful in fighting funding cuts whilst other groups like public sector unions or advocates for the arts had much less of an influence on policy - perhaps policy-makers were more open to certain kinds of arguments from certain groups of people? And leading on from this I wonder why the arguments made by Goldacre, Henderson, CaSE and others have had such a clear influence on policy-makers, who are now calling for the rolling out randomised control trials into new policy domains and for the inclusion of more experts in policy-making, in a way that those from other professions have not. I think looking at the historical and cultural context of these developments can help us to answer some of those questions, and shows us where previous debates are resurfacing.

      Your point about the media is also a good one, and leads me to ask why science might be having a greater influence on the media now than it did 10 years ago. Is it just the Brian Cox effect? Is it the success of the Government's STEM programme? Or is there something else going on?

    2. Why science over arts/trade unions? Hard for me to say, although I'd be tempted to speculate that the economic case put forward by the science community was more warmly received by a Conservative government than arguments by traditionally left-wing unions or the arts. Not to say that the same economic argument hasn't been understood by Labour governments over time.

      Re. your second paragraph. In my field, chemistry, there was a real worry during the mid-00s about the uptake of the subject beyond GCSEs. Universities were shutting Chemistry departments and enrolment numbers were falling. The Royal Soc Chemistry and others in the field began a concerted campaign to raise awareness of the important of the project. For example, at my University a dedicated science outreach officer was appointed in chemistry around 2004/5. There was a definite targeting of schoolchildren to get them to enjoy chemistry and want to study it, alongside efforts, I believe, to impress the importance of the subject to politicians. At the moment its seemed we were going to lose a generation of scientists, the corner was turned and student enrolment numbers at A-level and University started to rise again. How important this has been in accounting for the growing public interest in science I don't know, it might not be a causal relationship, but its just a thought!

  3. Thank you for an informative post. I like the title, as it is indeed a very British debate. In other countries debates on evidence are focused on concrete issues, typically around scientific controversies, and typically around the nature and policy consequences derived from scientific evidence. Rarely is the overall argument about the need of evidence-based policy-making formulated in these generic terms as in the UK. Probably because few would say they disagree and prefer non-evidence policy-making. The real issue however, is the organizational capacity of that evidence (budget, staff, organigram position, autonomy) and the actual use made of it. @SusanaBorras

    1. Thanks for your comment Susana, and for giving a European perspective on my post. I was basing my argument on the notion of civic epistemology - which I suspect you are familiar with - which is a different way of explaining and expressing these national differences. I think you are right to raise the issue of the organisational capacity of evidence-based policy-making, especially at a time where the civil service in the UK is undergoing major reforms. What also interests me is the specific visions of the nature of that 'evidence', that different groups of people hold, and how this might exclude or change the form of certain inputs of policy-making processes.