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The case for evidence

13 Apr 2017

Ahead of the global ‘March for Science’ and the publishing of a new CaSE report, Executive Director Dr Sarah Main sets out the importance of scientific evidence in ensuring good policy-making.

I will be excited to see many thousands of people across the world marching in support of science on Saturday 22nd April. A groundswell of opinion, belief in the values of science, has moved people to fill the streets.

The actions which first prompted this ‘equal and opposite reaction’ clustered in the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency. A series of statements and decisions signalled the start of widespread devaluation of science and scientific evidence by the President and his team.

It was a time of mixed messages, shock and confusion. Donald Trump’s declared scepticism about climate change and vaccinations manifested at the start of his presidency in fellow sceptics being placed in senior roles, what appeared to be undue political vetting of communication from scientific Government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and, later, proposals for deep and broad cuts to government funded medical and scientific research.

One of the claims that worried me most in those first weeks was that climate change data was being removed from Government websites. Whilst I recognise the precedent for political control of communications, I cannot accept justification for political control of data. In private discussions I had with others closely connected to American government, I was advised to keep a close eye on a wide range of published US Government data for its continued accessibility, indicating the nervousness that this practice would spread.

The march for science cites ‘budget cuts, censorship of researchers, disappearing datasets, and threats to dismantle government agencies’ as reasons why it came into being. It calls for ‘political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest’.

CaSE has been a consistent champion for the use of evidence in policymaking. The increasing attention placed on the use of evidence in policymaking in the UK over the last two decades is welcome and positive.

A year ago, CaSE devised a programme of work to explore current structures, processes and practice in evidence-based policy making in UK government. On 24th April, just two days after the march for science, we will publish a new report on evidence that makes recommendations for how structures and processes could be strengthened to improve practice across government.

Since the conception of this project in early 2016, the task facing policymakers has arguably multiplied as the UK Government seeks to responsibly navigate leaving the EU. It is highly likely there will be substantial domestic policy, funding and regulatory flux across government activity in the short and medium term. This increases the importance of ensuring the processes and structures for accessing and using evidence to inform decisions are fit for purpose, performing well and as joined-up as possible across government.

Many politicians I speak to are advocates of evidence-based policy making. However, I feel that one of the key traps people can fall in to is believing that you have succeeded because you can find some evidence to support your position, rather than that your position is based on an assessment of all the evidence.

It is the duty of our politicians and of officials in government to consider the weight of evidence to help them form effective policies for the public good. However, I have heard rather often politicians citing selective evidence for their preferred policies and, sadly, of officials being pressed to provide selected evidence to support a ministerial preference, rather than the weight of evidence to inform them.

We can be proud of the values and culture of the UK and its government that have led to it having one of the most highly regarded systems for scientific advice in the world. The change in attitude to scientific evidence in the US administration illustrates how important culture is in setting the stage for science. The challenges that governments and scientists seek to tackle are very often global in their scope. So the need for good use of evidence in policymaking is global too. We must continue to press for all evidence to be presented, weighed and scrutinised in the pursuit of good government – in the UK and around the world.

The new CaSE report, ‘Improving the use of evidence in policymaking in the UK government’, will be published on Monday 24th April 2017 #caseforevidence.

You can read CaSE’s original response to the Trump visa ban here