Sunday 31 October, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Lecture Theatre 1
In his first appearance before the cross-party House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, universities and science minister David Willetts conceded that it is impossible to make policy solely on the basis of scientific evidence. Yet despite this, politicians today rarely make policy statements without citing ‘the evidence’. Whether it’s the Chancellor’s avowed enthusiasm for the ‘empirical evidence about how people really behave’ furnished by behavioural economics and social psychology, or Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that ‘neuroscience tells us categorically’ that government intervention is best targeted in the first three years of a child’s life, politicians seem keener than ever to cite experts’ findings. Science and politics certainly seem locked in a new embrace. Willetts himself boasts that his recent book, The Pinch, ‘drew on insights from neuroscience, evolutionary biology and game theory’. The coalition has offered a science induction for new MPs and has ‘ensured that the principles of scientific advice to government are referred to in the new ministerial code’. Of course it is to be welcomed that politicians take an interest in science, but is democracy well-served by an ‘evidence-based’ approach to decision making?
Some critics worry that politicians use the phrase ‘the evidence shows…’ to imply they have no choice but to act in a pre-determined way. Frequently ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ are deployed to trump ethics or indeed politics. Might this reflect a lack of political conviction or moral authority? At a time when politicians are more distrusted than ever, is this reliance on scientific advisers really an attempt to come up with the best solutions, or to outsource hard political questions to the ‘objective’ realm of science? Far easier to wave a peer-reviewed research paper than to convince the public politically of the merits of a contentious decision.
Should scientists be flattered at what looks to be a new found respect for their expertise and research? Or as disputes rage over apparently contradictory evidence on issues ranging from abortion to drugs, is science being treated as a political tool for ends ill suited to its remit? Might evidence be used promiscuously to back up whatever political end is required, ignoring nuances for the sake of asserting ‘proof’ that this or that scheme is incontrovertible? Certainly when experts’ arguments run counter to the government’s often predetermined policy, their research is conveniently ignored as in the case of Professor David Nutt on drugs policy, or when scientific reticence about banning mephedrone came into conflict with political pressure. Conversely, is there a danger of scientists succumbing to policy-led research, which frequently – even if semi-consciously - moulds itself around the expected outcome for desired future policy? Can we make the distinction between legitimate areas of expertise for politicians and scientists? Can science and politics collaborate without damaging both?
Listen to session audio:
|David Willetts MP|
Minister of State for Universities and Science; author, The Pinch: how baby boomers took their children's future - and why they should give it back
James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization; director, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, University of Oxford
|Dr James Panton|
Head of politics, Magdalen College School, Oxford; associate lecturer in politics and philosophy, Open University; co-founder, The Manifesto Club.
|Dr Evan Harris|
campaigner for secularism in the public sphere; former science spokesman, Liberal Democrats; writer, Guardian Political Science blog
journalist and writer; co-writer and performer, BrainSex, Humans V Nature: Engineering FTW! and Your Days Are Numbered: the maths of death
Cambridge academic and Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert is a champion for science in the new Parliament.Paul Jump, Times Higher Education, 13 August 2010
Many MPs do not get involved in science policy because the issues take them 'seriously outside their comfort zone', a senior parliamentarian has admitted.Paul Jump, Times Higher Education, 30 July 2010
A coalition government needs political common ground. Science and evidence would be a good place to start.Chris Tyler, The Times, 19 May 2010
The UK government’s science policy isn’t just contradictory, it’s used a stand-in for politicsTimandra Harkness, Forth.ie, 5 March 2010
There is a perception that evidence-based policymaking is 'going out of fashion'. However, Chief Government Social Researcher Sue Duncan argues that the term is widely misunderstood, and that the use of research evidence as a basis for policymaking is alive and well, and set to play a more fundamental role than ever before.Sue Duncan, ESRC Society Today, 25 November 2009
Science can tell us about the molecules, they say, about their effect on the body, and the risks. But policy is a separate domain: a matter for judgement calls on social and ethical issues. Only politicians, they say, can determine the correct way to send out a clear message to the public. It is not a matter for science. Interestingly this is wrong.Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, 8 November 2009
The paper reflects on the use by the UK central government of statistical evidence in educational policy matters. Particular attention is given to school league tables. The paper is generally critical of government attitudes, but suggests that progress towards rational decision-making does occur.Harvey Goldstein, Cambridge Journal of Education, September 2008