The barriers to evidence based policymaking in environmental policy

Kathryn Oliver and colleagues examined 145 studies of the barriers to the use of evidence in health policy. They identified a range of problems, including a gap between ‘supply and demand’, the inability of scientists to provide evidence in a timely and strategic way, and a tendency for policymakers to use short cuts (including personal experience and an ad hoc reliance on experts) rather than conduct systematic searches for policy relevant evidence.

In my work with Adam Wellstead, I am beginning to identify the same findings in environmental policy. Multiple studies suggest that:

  • Current evidence on the nature of environmental problems, or the effectiveness of policy solutions, is incredibly patchy
  • The evidence is not ‘packaged’ well (easy to understand, ‘framed’ in a way that is attractive to policymakers, and/ or accompanied by realistic expectations for policy change)
  • Scientists do not engage well with policymakers, either in networks, academic-practitioner forums, or by using intermediaries or ‘knowledge brokers’
  • Broad differences in academic-policymaking cultures undermine the ability of scientists to engage in politics in a timely manner, or in a way that will maximise the impact of their findings
  • Scientists need to adapt to the vagaries of policymaking, or a tendency for policymakers to: address short term issues rather than plan for the long term; rely on personal experience and limited expert advice; misjudge the risks associated with environmental problems; seek simple, easy to understand, stories rather than the results from sophisticated models; and, use science selectively, often to give a gloss of objectivity to their policy choices.

In other words, most policymakers would make hopeless scientists, and most scientists would be rubbish politicians.

This sort of analysis is interesting enough, and tells us something about the ‘science-policy interface’. Yet, it tends not to be well informed by policy theory or political science. This matters because one might look at the list of barriers and conclude that, if we can overcome them, we can make a big difference to the use of evidence in policy.

That would be a mistake.

Yes, it would be good for policymakers to understand the science a bit more, and for scientists to provide punchy one-page reports, but it is also possible that neither exercise would make much difference. Instead, to understand the profound ‘barriers’ to the use of scientific evidence, we need more scientific knowledge about the policy process itself. This is what most of the environmental literature fails to appreciate, and this lack of knowledge produces a tendency for authors to recommend the same things each time – such as more academic-practitioner workshops to identify barriers – without generating a sense of progress. Such studies should also consider, for example, the huge investment of time and energy that other actors invest, to learn how policymakers think about policy problems, and how to form coalitions with other powerful actors. A glossy report passed on by a ‘knowledge broker’, or a few afternoons in workshops looks paltry in comparison.

In other words, most of this literature does not ask the questions – for example, what is the dominant ‘framing’ of the policy problem; who are the most significant winners and losers with regard to the outcomes of policies; and, what is the effect of multi-level governing arrangements on the use of evidence? – that political scientists would take for granted, and the analysis suffers as a result.

I, and we, are in the process of trying to fill some of those gaps – to use the science of evidence based policy making to inform the scientists who may want to be involved in evidence based policy making. There are more details here – – and the draft chapter on environmental policymaking is here: Cairney Palgrave Pivot CHAPTER 4 environment 25.8.15

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

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