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10 May 2017

Andy Westwood, Head of Policy at Policy@Manchester, University of Manchester, on making the most of opportunities to form clear and evidenced policy

The new report from CaSE, ‘Improving the Use of Evidence in UK Government Policymaking,’ published last month, on how to improve the use of science and evidence in public policymaking comes at a time when many scientists think this is getting worse rather than better. Our populist politics appears to promote what we want to be right rather than what, inconveniently for some, might actually be true.

But even when the appetite for using scientific advice and good evidence is there, it is sometimes too difficult to make it happen consistently and systematically. The report from Anusha Panjwani goes a good way to address these issues – recommending clearer, more transparent involvement of Chief Scientific Advisors in policy making, more effective scrutiny and evaluation and a return for the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and GO Science to the Cabinet Office from its recent homes in DIUS/BIS and now BEIS.
That’s all good advice for the incoming government formed on 9th June and for incoming ministers and parliamentarians (as well as for newly elected Metro Mayors). But there’s quite a bit of politics to get through before that. It doesn’t bode well that the snap election gives little time to either consult academics or to develop evidence based narratives. Policy ideas often seem to come fully formed – or with prejudices and flaws already built in – from nowhere.  Evaluation and scrutiny rarely seems to help as much as we might expect. This reinforces the theory of ‘policy windows’ – a theory from US academic John Kingdon, that describes how agendas, actors and opportunities come together to form a window, during which policy is ‘made’. But when windows close – and typically when policy evaluation or scrutiny takes place – ministers tend to close ranks and stick stubbornly to the policy at hand.

These are long established mismatches between those that are responsible for coming up with policy ideas and those that provide the evidence that, occasionally at least, is designed to help them. But we find ourselves in a moment where systems and processes might be the least of our worries. Instead we find an electorate that has ‘had enough of experts’ and that owes more to populism, ‘post truth’ and ‘fake news’. 

How concerned should we be? Science and evidence has alway been a part of what Stephen Ball describes as the ‘bricolage’ of policy – one element of many, including the media, campaigns, panics, theories, orthodoxies and more. The worry is less that it has been displaced altogether, but more that it now occupies a reduced or less decisive role. It’s difficult enough to realise that good evidence isn’t the only thing that matters in policymaking, but it’s even harder to accept that scientists (and universities) must compete to make their voices heard at all.

So we are going to need tactics and good timing as well as the best evidence and ideas. We might need to be smarter in choosing the debates, where policy windows are open and where we can have significant influence. In other words, from the policy ideas swirling around us – some good, some bad, some absolutely horrendous – we may have to pick some winners. And if we want to persuade the new government that good evidence matters across the board, then it might be better not to pick those issues on which we fundamentally disagree. 

After the passing of the HE and Research Bill in the final days of the last Parliament, UKRI becomes extremely significant. Not just for co-ordinating spending priorities but for impact, campaigning and for strategy too. There’s a need to build and sharpen the incentives for public as well as political engagement and John Kingman, Mark Walport and David Sweeney should be pretty adept at doing so. 

There should be some significant opportunities for the social sciences – for micro as well as macro economics, political science, sociology, geography and others. The most significant domestic policy challenge will be about ‘place’, ‘the left behind’ and how industrial policy (and science) might make a difference. The long term prospects for places such as Bolton, Dudley and Great Yarmouth are good places to start (not least because evidence will be more gratefully received… let face it, any ideas at all will be). 
Finally a challenge for all of us. We make a pretty good fist of criticising politicians and civil servants for ignoring, cherry-picking or misrepresenting evidence.  But scientists, academics and universities deserve some criticism too. We don’t always present the right evidence, in the right format at the right time. Infamously, few ministers, advisers or officials have access to academic journals even when they want it. 
So what might a set of recommendations look like for us? What can academics, scientists and universities do better to improve the use of evidence in policymaking? How can we play our part in pegging back a populist politics with less regard for truth, facts and experts? We should certainly enlist the advice of those politicians and civil servants that prioritise such knowledge and advice. And we could ask them for a companion piece to the CASE report, telling us how best to offer our knowledge and evidence? When? How? In what form? To whom? 

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