Debate: the nature of evidence-based policymaking and academic-policymaker exchange

Kathryn Oliver, Adam Wellstead and I have a letter in Nature (forthcoming) which comments on a recent article by Sutherland and Burgman on the topic of evidence-based policymaking.

Our letter is short and well-edited, so we thought it would be useful to share the original submission:

“We read your recent comment on expert advice[1] with interest and some alarm. An interest in increasing research impact is to be welcomed. However, advice on how to ‘control’ the complex social processes between policy and evidence is naive at best, and deliberately antidemocratic at worst.

A number of unsupported statements about the use of evidence in policy are made including: advice is the “predominant” mode by which evidence influences policy decisions. Sutherland conflates scientific bias, lack of consensus and group dynamics as sources of expert’s uncertainty; which they claim can be addressed by e.g. training experts and weighting their opinions – which policymakers are certainly not qualified for.

Dispiriting, if true. Fortunately, a massive interdisciplinary literature exists showing that most, if not all of their assumptions are grossly misinformed. Policymakers access multiple evidence types[2] (technical, research, routinely collected), used in many ways[3] (– not just as “though it were data” (whatever that means). Academic advice has not been shown to lead to ‘better’ policy (whatever that is). Policymakers, in fact, are influenced by a far greater range of factors admitted here (e.g. public opinion, inheritance of policies and institutional rules, finance, unpredictable events, and trust in actors). This article does not draw on current models of policymaking, as understood by policy scholars.

While limited knowledge of the relevant literature is unfortunate, there are further negative impacts; perpetuation of negative stereotypes of both policymakers and academics, when in fact there are many examples of productive collaborations and hybrid roles; the undermining of colleagues doing and researching knowledge mobilisation for policy; and the lesson that the complex relationship between evidence and policy can be reduced to a linear, technocratic process.  Giving non-evidence-based advice to policymakers or academics will only hamper the creation of good quality relationships”.

[1] Sutherland WJ, Burgman MA. Policy Advice: Use Experts Wisely. Nature (2015) 526;317-318.

[2] Pearce W, Wesselink A, Colebatch H. Evidence and meaning in policymaking. Evidence and Policy (2014) 10:2, 161-165

[3] Smith, Katherine E., and Kerry E. Joyce. “Capturing complex realities: understanding efforts to achieve evidence-based policy and practice in public health.” Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice 8.1 (2012): 57-78




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