William Gardner has offerred a trenchant response to my earlier post about the relationship between evidence and policy. If you have not read it, take a few minutes to do so and then come back here.

I expect that we agree more than we disagree.  I also think the challenge may be that those of us who are interested in the intersection of scientific evidence and public policy are, in fact, talking about two distinct challenges.

The first challenge, and the one that is dominant in the public square of late, is the perception that government policy making is increasingly an evidence-free zone. Recently in Canada, the focus has been the approach of the Harper government and allegations that they are muzzling scientists, decreasing funding for scientific research, and generally ignoring evidence when making policy in favour of partisan political considerations. Similar concerns were raised about the second Bush administration in the United States. Make no mistake, I share many of these concerns.

However, there is a second, somewhat less visible issue that should also concern us. As important as scientific evidence is for making good policy decisions, it is not the only consideration. Yet far too many people who are trained in the natural and medical sciences (and some social scientitsts as well – think economics) blithely assume that policy making is a form of applied problem solving. The task, on this view, is to define the problem, gather the evidence, and then convey the results to decision makers who will dutifully tranlate the evidence into policy. This approach is endemic in public health policy. This is even more of a problem as the agenda of public health expands, necessarily, from a preoccupation with the causes of infectious disease to a concern about all of the things that negatively affect our health. The latter is a long list and pushes public health into seeking to be a player in a wide range of policy fields. Naive empiricism will not do.

As I have argued elsewhere, and others have done before me, scientists interested in the policy making process may wish to borrow from the insights of political science. This will not be news to the readers of this blog, including William Gardiner. But it does offer a counterpoint to those in the scientific community who sometimes appear to reduce policy making to being an exercise in knowledge translation – if only they understood the evidence, they would make ‘better’ decisions. Not in a democracy, thank goodness.

Patrick Fafard
Patrick Fafard is the associate director of the Global Strategy Lab and a full professor in the Graduate School of Public & International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

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