Should Research Count for More in Policy-Making?

Last night the policy team attended a debate organised by the Centre for Evidence-Based Policy at King’s College London. Taking place as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science, the motion proposed was: “Research should count for more than other kinds of evidence in making public policy”.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the panellists put forward their views for and against the motion. Professor Roger Jowell, Director of the European Social Survey at the School of Social Sciences, City University argued in favour of the motion, stating that the only alternatives to using research to inform policy-making were a) ignorance, b) conviction: strict adherence to a manifesto or ideology or c) guesswork. He was supported in his arguments by Jacque Mallender, Chief Executive of the Matrix Knowledge Group, who argued that in the context of public policy, society may be taking actions which we think are for public benefit when in fact they are causing harm: something only a well-evidenced and researched study can show us.

Opposing the motion were Louise Shaxson, Director of the Delta Partnership consultancy and Gary Kass, Strategy and Futures team, Natural England. Gary Cass argued that although research should support and inform policy-making, it should not count more than other inputs in determining policy. Giving the example of the level of Benzene acceptable in the air, he stated that science could show us how the incidence of cancer would increase with the increase in ambient Benzene concentration, but only policy-makers could determine what an acceptable level of risk would be, and design a policy accordingly.

A speaker from the National School of Government, from the floor, argued that policy-makers often need a decision now, whilst science could deliver research at a later date. Policy too was about promoting consensus, and a research-based decision which took no account of public sentiment would surely fail.

Overall, Professor Jowell summed up his position by saying that those opposing the motion were giving examples of other kinds of evidence informing policy – all of which included research. Policy can be value-driven, based on the needs and desires of society, but these values come from our knowledge of society: experiential and based on information gathering over time. Therefore, values are not research-free.

The motion was supported by 66 votes to 32.