Bridging the gap between evidence and policy

Nature recently published an excellent list of 20 things policymakers should understand about interpreting scientific claims, by William J Sutherland, David Spiegelhalter and Mark A Burgman, academics from Cambridge and Melbourne. Included are reminders that “scientists are human” and that “correlation does not imply causation”, as well as practical examples explaining why “regression to the mean can mislead” or how to “beware the base rate fallacy”.

The authors hope it will “improve policymakers’ understanding of the imperfect nature of
science”, pointing out that, “there is rarely, if ever, a beautifully designed double-blind, randomized, replicated, controlled experiment with a large sample size and unambiguous conclusion that tackles the exact policy issue”.

Not one member of the Cabinet has a science degree and only one of 650 MPs does – a
pretty shocking state of scientific ignorance amongst law-makers. The idea is that these tips could help people understand the limitations of evidence – and ask the right questions.

In response, if not retaliation, a team of science advisors from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, led by Dr Chris Tyler, has listed 20 things scientists should understand about policy making, in The Guardian. It points out that ” ‘We need more research’ is the wrong answer”, that “public opinion matters” and that “there is more to policy than scientific evidence”. The authors argue that scientists need to do more to engage in a constructive way with policy-makers, agreeing that the Nature list is useful.

2013 has seen a wider debate, and emerging agenda, about how evidence can be used to
improve policy. Hard Evidence at The Conversation gets academics to dig deep into the evidence around tough public policy problems and Sense about Science publishes a range of great resources to equip everyone to make sense of  evidence and to question scientific and medical  claims. In March, the government announced a network of What Works centres, in which the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which has set the stage, and the Education Endowment Foundation will be joined by four other centres to promote the use of robust evidence in crime reduction, local economic growth, ageing better, and early intervention. And the Education Media Centre has joined the Science Media Centre in trying to ensure public access to good evidence through the media.

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