Category Archives: public policy

Emotion and reason in politics: the rational/ irrational distinction

In ‘How to communicate effectively with policymakers’, Richard Kwiatkowski and I use the distinction between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ cognitive shortcuts ‘provocatively’. I sort of wish we had been more direct, because I have come to realise that:

  1. My attempts to communicate with sarcasm and facial gestures may only ever appeal to a niche audience, and
  2. even if you use the scare quotes – around a word like ‘irrational’ – to denote the word’s questionable use, it’s not always clear what I’m questioning, because
  3. you need to know the story behind someone’s discussion to know what they are questioning.*

So, here are some of the reference points I’m using when I tell a story about ‘irrationality’:

1. I’m often invited to be the type of guest speaker that challenges the audience, it is usually a scientific audience, and the topic is usually evidence based policymaking.

So, when I say ‘irrational’, I’m speaking to (some) scientists who think of themselves as rational and policymakers as irrational, and use this problematic distinction to complain about policy-based evidence, post-truth politics, and perhaps even the irrationality of voters for Brexit. Action based on this way of thinking would be counterproductive. In that context, I use ‘irrational’ as a way into some more nuanced discussions including:

  • all humans combine cognition and emotion to make choices; and,
  • emotions are one of many sources of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’ that help us make some decisions very quickly and often very well.

In other words, it is silly to complain that some people are irrational, when we are all making choices this way, and such decision-making is often a good thing.

2. This focus on scientific rationality is part of a wider discussion of what counts as good evidence or valuable knowledge. Examples include:

  • Policy debates on the value of bringing together many people with different knowledge claims – such as through user and practitioner experience – to ‘co-produce’ evidence.
  • Wider debates on the ‘decolonization of knowledge’ in which narrow ‘Western’ scientific principles help exclude the voices of many populations by undermining their claims to knowledge.

3. A focus on rationality versus irrationality is still used to maintain sexist and racist caricatures or stereotypes, and therefore dismiss people based on a misrepresentation of their behaviour.

I thought that, by now, we’d be done with dismissing women as emotional or hysterical, but apparently not. Indeed, as some recent racist and sexist coverage of Serena Williams demonstrates, the idea that black women are not rational is still tolerated in mainstream discussion.

4. Part of the reason that we can only conclude that people combine cognition and emotion, without being able to separate their effects in a satisfying way, is that the distinction is problematic.

It is difficult to demonstrate empirically. It is also difficult to assign some behaviours to one camp or the other, such as when we consider moral reasoning based on values and logic.

To sum up, I’ve been using the rational/irrational distinction explicitly to make a simple point that is relevant to the study of politics and policymaking:

  • All people use cognitive shortcuts to help them ignore almost all information about the world, to help them make decisions efficiently.
  • If you don’t understand and act on this simple insight, you’ll waste your time by trying to argue someone into submission or giving them a 500-page irrelevant report when they are looking for one page written in a way that makes sense to them.

Most of the rest has been mostly implicit, and communicated non-verbally, which is great when you want to keep a presentation brief and light, but not if you want to acknowledge nuance and more serious issues.





*which is why I’m increasingly interested in Riker’s idea of heresthetics, in which the starting point of a story is crucial. We can come to very different conclusions about a problem and its solution by choosing different starting points, to accentuate one aspect of a problem and downplay another, even when our beliefs and preferences remain basically the same.



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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy, Storytelling

How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas

If you have read Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence? and What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? then join me as we get into the thornier dilemmas in this punchline post. Maybe you already appreciate the importance of bounded rationality and policymaking complexity. Maybe you’ve read the gazillion posts which think through the relationship between ‘evidence based policymaking’ and policy theories and now hope that there’s nothing more to say. Well, you hope in vain.

This post compares some general bland advice, based on these posts, to the dilemmas that you might encounter if you really take key parts of these theories to heart.

FUSE slide 5 bland

My first aim is to compare the ‘how to’ advice that you might take from policy theories versus the grey literature.

Policy concepts describe a wider context in which to produce practical advice:

  • If there are so many potential authoritative venues, devote considerable energy to finding where the ‘action’ is.
  • Even if you find the right venue, you will not know the unwritten rules unless you study them intensely.
  • Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour some sources of evidence.
  • Research advocates can be privileged insiders in some venues and excluded completely in others.
  • If your evidence challenges an existing paradigm, you need a persuasion strategy good enough to prompt a shift of attention to a policy problem and a willingness to understand that problem in a new way.
  • You can try to find the right time to use evidence to exploit a crisis leading to major policy change, but the opportunities are few and chances of success low.
  • And so on.

In that context, theory-informed studies recommend investing your time over the long term – to built up alliances, trust in the messenger, knowledge of the system, and to seek ‘windows of opportunity’ for policy change – but offer no assurances that any of this investment will ever pay off.

The despair does not stop there. More specific theories and studies help us combine practical considerations with the ethical dilemmas that evidence advocates face when trying to be effective in a highly political policymaking environment.

First, refresh your memory of key images of the policy process. Or, if you are on a PC, you can keep the two tabs open for comparison.

Second, consider the following staircase analogy in which the ethical dilemmas – regarding how far you should go to get attention for your evidence – seems to become more problematic with each upwards step:

Step 1: Change levels of attention to issues, not minds.

The narrative policy framework (NPF) suggests that ‘narratives’ – consisting of a setting, characters, plot, and moral – can produce a measurable policy impact, but primarily to reinforce the beliefs of policy actors. The existing beliefs of the audience often seem more important than the skills of the storyteller. Therefore, to maximise the impact of evidence, (a) tell a story which appeals to the biases of your audiences, and (b) employ ‘heresthetic’ strategies in which we try to increase the salience of one belief at the expense of another rather than ask someone to change their belief entirely.

Step 2: Engage only with actors who share your beliefs.

The advocacy coalition framework (ACF) suggests that actors enter politics to turn their beliefs into policy. In highly salient issues, coalition actors romanticise their own cause and demonize their opponents. This competition extends to the use of evidence: each coalition may demand different evidence, or interpret the same evidence differently, to support their own cause. If so, the most feasible strategy may be to treat evidence as a resource to support the coalitions which support your cause, and to engage minimally with competitor coalitions who seek to ignore or discredit your evidence. Only in less salient issues will we find a ‘brokerage’ role for scientists.

Step 3: Exercise power to limit debate and dominate policymaker attention.

Punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) suggests that policy actors frame issues to limit external attention. If they can define a problem successfully as solved, bar the technical details relating to regulation and implementation, they can help reduce external attention and privilege the demand for evidence from scientific experts.

Step 4. Frame evidence to be consistent with objectionable beliefs.

Social construction and policy design theory (SCPD) suggests that, when dealing with salient issues, policymakers exploit social stereotypes strategically, or rely on their emotions, to define target populations as deserving of government benefits or punishments. Some populations can challenge (or exploit the rewards of) their image, but many are powerless to respond. Or, in lower salience issues, there is more scope for bureaucrats and experts to contain discussion to small groups (as in the discussion of PET). In both cases, many social groups become disenchanted with politics because they are punished by government policy and excluded from debate. To find an influential audience for evidence, one may be most effective by framing evidence to be sympathetic to stereotype-led or other forms of misleading political strategy.

The main role of these discussions is to expose the assumptions that we make about the primacy of research evidence and the lengths to which we are willing to go to privilege its use. Policy studies suggest that the most effective ways to privilege research evidence may be to:

  • manipulate the order in which we consider issues and make choices
  • refuse to engage in debate with our competitors
  • frame issues to minimise attention or maximise the convergence between evidence and the rhetorical devices of cynical politicians.

However, they also expose stark ethical dilemmas regarding the consequences for democracy. Put simply, the most effective evidence advocacy strategies may be inconsistent with wider democratic principles and key initiatives such as participatory policymaking.

If so, these discussions prompt us to consider the ways in which we can value research evidence up to a certain point, to produce more ‘co-productive’ strategies which balance efforts to limit participation (to privilege expertise) and encourage it (to privilege deliberative and participatory forms of democracy). This approach is more honest and realistic than the more common story that science is, by its very nature, the antidote to populist or dysfunctional politics.

[If you came here in error, or to continue your adventure, go to page 100]

See also:

EBPM key themes

Policy theories in 1000 words (or short podcasts) and 500 words


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

How far should you go to privilege evidence? 1. Evidence and governance principles

Read this discussion first, then have a look at this table. It sums up two debates which ‘play out at the same time: epistemological and methodological disagreements on the nature of good evidence; and, practical or ideological disagreements regarding the best way for national policymakers to translate evidence into local policy and practice’.

The table describes three ideal-type approaches to the need to combine two judgements on: (1) how best to produce and share evidence, and (2) the most appropriate way to balance central and local government responsibilities.

3 ideal types EBPM

It provides a simple way to think about how far you would go to privilege the use of scientific evidence in policy.

For example, let’s say that you like the look of a hierarchy of evidence in which RCTs and their systematic review are at the top. Are you happy to minimise local autonomy (to co-produce and redesign public services) to ensure fidelity to the same policy intervention?

Or, let’s say that you favour governance principles which emphasise localism, respect for user-driven service design, and sharing practitioner experience. Are you happy to dispense with many scientific ways to evaluate policy success?

Or, let’s say that you want good evidence and respectful governance. Does the improvement method give you the best or worst of both worlds?

Reflecting on these choices, I suggest that:

‘A commitment to ‘scaling up evidence-based best practice’ seems like an innocuous and technical exercise that can be built primarily on academic expertise. However, we can identify the role of politics when we highlight the choices that scientists and governments make to gather evidence and ensure policy diffusion. These choices are not simply technical. Rather, they are between fundamentally different approaches to evidence and governance. Policymaking strategies can vary markedly, based on attitudes to hierarchies of evidence and the willingness of central governments to encourage local policymakers to learn and adapt rather than impose the same model’.

Dr Kathryn Oliver and I conclude that:

‘Evidence-based policymaking is not just about the need for policymakers to understand how evidence is produced and should be used. It is also about the need for academics to reflect on the assumptions they make about the best ways to gather evidence and put the results into practice, in a political environment where other people may not share, or even know about, their understanding of the world; and the difference between the identification of evidence on the success of an intervention, in one place and one point in time (or several such instances), and the political choice to roll it out, based on the assumption that national governments are best placed to spread that success throughout the country’

Put more simply, ‘good evidence’ for policy involves a two-sided political choice, on: (1) whose evidence claims should matter, and (2) how much government centralisation you need, to make sure that your knowledge claim counts.

Put more strongly, ignorance of these dilemmas is no excuse for making evidential choices without considering the consequences for governance.

See also:

The evidence policy gap: changing the research mindset is only the beginning

If scientists want to influence policymaking, they need to understand it

“Evidence-based best practice is more political than it looks: a case study of the ‘Scottish Approach’”

‘Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?’

The UK government’s imaginative use of evidence to make policy

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the intersection between evidence and policy transfer


[If you came here in error, or to continue your adventure, go to page 100]


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

How else can we describe and seek to fill the evidence-policy gap?

There is a common story within science that describes a new era in politics: policymakers do not pay sufficient respect to expertise or attention to good quality evidence.

Common solutions are supply side, to produce better evidence and communicate it more effectively, and demand side, to reform how governments process evidence and improve science literacy among policymakers.

One part of this story emphasises wide academic agreement on how to assess evidence quality – with reference to scientific methods – and technical improvements to communication skills and organisational processes to close the evidence-policy gap. The other part emphasises policymakers irrationality or cynicism and political system dysfunction, producing ‘policy based evidence’ rather than ‘evidence based policy’.

Policy studies help us tell a less alarmist and more consistent story on the use of evidence:

  • Policymakers have always combined ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ cognitive shortcuts to evidence. No person or organisation has the ability to process all information, and cognitive efficiency is necessary to policy choice.
  • It would be a mistake to assess evidence quality narrowly in relation to a hierarchy of research methods or exaggerate the extent to which academics adhere to this hierarchy.
  • Policymakers identify problems and place certain demands on evidence: to help solve problems quickly, and maintain their image of governing competence, credibility, or political support. Policy relevance and availability are necessary gauges of quality, and an evidence-informed solution must be technically and politically feasible.

Conclusion 1. Reframe supply side solutions on production and communication. Evidence syntheses should combine an inclusive assessment of research quality and policy relevance. Communication should relate to the framing of evidence to influence the ways in which policymakers (a) define problems, and (b) describe the political feasibility of solutions.

  • Too many commentators declare policymaking failure in (explicit or implicit) comparison to an ideal-type, such as the policy cycle, in which (a) a core group of policymakers can make choices and process them in a straightforward evidence-informed way, through a series of orderly stages, and therefore (b) researchers know how and when to present evidence.
  • Policymaking is better understood as a complex environment or system over which the ‘centre’ has limited control. Policymakers must delegate most responsibilities to many other organisation and networks, and respond to socio-economic conditions and events out of their control. Consequently, the ‘action’ takes place in many different parts of the system, there are many different ‘rules of the game’, and policy often seems to ‘emerge’ locally without central direction. If we think of these dynamics as inevitable features of political systems, not dysfunctions to be solved, we can produce more pragmatic ways to encourage the use of evidence within them.

Conclusion 2. Reframe demand side solutions to take systemic factors into account. Interventions to improve evidence processing or literacy in a small part of government will be ineffective if they do not take into account policymaking scale, and key factors such as the division of policymaking responsibilities across systems, pervasiveness of subsystems, and the limited coordinative capacity of a political system’s ‘centre’.

In the next posts, we consider the practical and ethical dilemmas that arise when you seek the greater use of evidence in policy:

  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 1. Evidence and governance principles (go to page 101)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas (go to page 526)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 3. Use psychological insights to manipulate policymakers (go to page 300 then scroll down to point 3)

[If you came here in error, or to continue your adventure, go to page 100]


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Encourage ‘knowledge management for policy’

Knowledge management for policy impact by Lene Topp, David Mair, Laura Smillie (from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, JRC & Paul Cairney (not from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, JRC)

Put down that huge blue pen again. Step even further away from the flipchart. The JRC did all those exercises for you, and there are no more sticky circles or fluorescent post-its left.

In this article, we show the payoffs to a wide information-gathering exercise, from expert workshops to literature reviews, to produce advice on how to close the evidence-policy gap. We recommend that relevant organisations should develop teams of researchers, policymakers, and ‘knowledge brokers’ to produce eight key practices:

  1. research synthesis, to generate ‘state of the art’ knowledge on a policy problem
  2. management of expert communities, to maximise collaboration
  3. understanding policymaking, to know when and how to present evidence
  4. interpersonal skills, to focus on relationships and interaction
  5. engagement, to include citizens and stakeholders
  6. effective communication of knowledge
  7. monitoring and evaluation, to identify the impact of evidence on policy
  8. policy advice, to know how to present knowledge effectively and ethically.

We do so in colour:

Figure 1

We describe the problems that these 8 skills are designed to solve:

Table 1

Then we scare you with a cautionary tale (*spot the typo – it’s unsure*):

Table 2

We conclude:

‘In recommending eight skills, we argue that ‘pure scientists’ and ‘professional politicians’ cannot do this job alone. Scientists need ‘knowledge brokers’ and science advisors with the skills to increase policymakers’ demand for evidence. Policymakers need help to understand and explain the evidence and its implications. Brokers are essential: scientists with a feel for policy and policymakers understanding how to manage science and scientists.

Many scientists are in a great position to move into this new profession, providing a more robust form of knowledge-based consultancy, built on a crucial understanding of scientific methods and evidence assessment. However, working between science and policy is hard to manoeuver, and the training we identify is more like a career choice than a quick fix. Science and policy worlds are interconnected, but not always compatible. Therefore, knowledge managers need to professionalise, to develop new skills, and work in teams with a comprehensive set of skills unlikely to be held by one person’.

It already sounds like a career choice, doesn’t it? Still, we need to think further:

  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 1. Evidence and governance principles (go to page 101)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas (go to page 526)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 3. Use psychological insights to manipulate policymakers (go to page 300 then scroll down to point 3)

[If you came here in error, or to continue your adventure, go to page 100]


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence?

The first post in this series asks: Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence? It is based on talks that I have been giving since 2016, mostly to tap into a common story told by people in my audience (and the ‘science community’ more generally) about a new era in politics: policymakers do not pay sufficient respect to expertise or attention to good quality evidence.

It’s not my story, but I think it’s important to respect my audience members enough to (a) try to engage with their question, before (b) inviting them to think differently about how to ask it, and (c) provide different types of solutions according to the changing nature of the question.

Instead of a really long post for (b) and (c), I’ve made it a bit like Ceefax in which you can choose which question to ask or answer:

  • Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence? (go to page 154)
  • What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Tips from the ‘how to’ literature from the science community (go to page 650)
  • What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Encourage ‘knowledge management for policy’ (go to page 568)
  • How else can we describe and seek to fill the evidence-policy gap? (go to page 400)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 1. Evidence and governance principles (go to page 101)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas (go to page 526)
  • How far should you go to privilege evidence? 3. Use psychological insights to manipulate policymakers (go to page 300 then scroll down to point 3)

Some of this material will appear in work with Dr Kathryn Oliver (papers in review) and (assuming they don’t jettison it during the writing process) with my co-authors on a forthcoming report for Enlightenment 2.0 

See also:

Evidence-based policymaking: political strategies for scientists living in the real world

The Science of Evidence-based Policymaking: How to Be Heard

Evidence based policymaking: 7 key themes

I also do slides, such as:

Paul Cairney FUSE May 2018 

Paul Cairney Victoria May 2018

This is me presenting those slides in Cambridge while being very Scottish, enjoying a too-heavy cold, and sucking a lozenge. Please note that I tend to smile a lot and make many sarcastic jokes while presenting, partly to apologise indirectly for all the self-publicity.


Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy

Evidence-based policymaking: political strategies for scientists living in the real world

Note: I wrote the following discussion (last year) to be a Nature Comment but it was not to be!

Nature articles on evidence-based policymaking often present what scientists would like to see: rules to minimise bias caused by the cognitive limits of policymakers, and a simple policy process in which we know how and when to present the best evidence.[1]  What if neither requirement is ever met? Scientists will despair of policymaking while their competitors engage pragmatically and more effectively.[2]

Alternatively, if scientists learned from successful interest groups, or by using insights from policy studies, they could develop three ‘take home messages’: understand and engage with policymaking in the real world; learn how and when evidence ‘wins the day’; and, decide how far you should go to maximise the use of scientific evidence. Political science helps explain this process[3], and new systematic and thematic reviews add new insights.[4] [5] [6] [7]

Understand and engage with policymaking in the real world

Scientists are drawn to the ‘policy cycle’, because it offers a simple – but misleading – model for engagement with policymaking.[3] It identifies a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’ of government, perhaps giving the impression that scientists should identify the correct ‘stages’ in which to engage (such as ‘agenda setting’ and ‘policy formulation’) to ensure the best use of evidence at the point of authoritative choice. This is certainly the image generated most frequently by health and environmental scientists when they seek insights from policy studies.[8]

Yet, this model does not describe reality. Many policymakers, in many levels and types of government, adopt and implement many measures at different times. For simplicity, we call the result ‘policy’ but almost no modern policy theory retains the linear policy cycle concept. In fact, it is more common to describe counterintuitive processes in which, for example, by the time policymaker attention rises to a policy problem at the ‘agenda setting’ stage, it is too late to formulate a solution. Instead, ‘policy entrepreneurs’ develop technically and politically feasible solutions then wait for attention to rise and for policymakers to have the motive and opportunity to act.[9]

Experienced government science advisors recognise this inability of the policy cycle image to describe real world policymaking. For example, Sir Peter Gluckman presents an amended version of this model, in which there are many interacting cycles in a kaleidoscope of activity, defying attempts to produce simple flow charts or decision trees. He describes the ‘art and craft’ of policy engagement, using simple heuristics to deal with a complex and ‘messy’ policy system.[10]

Policy studies help us identify two such heuristics or simple strategies.

First, respond to policymaker psychology by adapting to the short cuts they use to gather enough information quickly: ‘rational’, via trusted sources of oral and written evidence, and ‘irrational’, via their beliefs, emotions, and habits. Policy theories describe many interest group or ‘advocacy coalition’ strategies, including a tendency to combine evidence with emotional appeals, romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents, or tell simple emotional stories with a hero and moral to exploit the biases of their audience.[11]

Second, adapt to complex ‘policy environments’ including: many policymakers at many levels and types of government, each with their own rules of evidence gathering, network formation, and ways of understanding policy problems and relevant socioeconomic conditions.[2] For example, advocates of international treaties often find that the evidence-based arguments their international audience takes for granted become hotly contested at national or subnational levels (even if the national government is a signatory), while the same interest groups presenting the same evidence of a problem can be key insiders in one government department but ignored in another.[3]

Learn the conditions under which evidence ‘wins the day’ in policymaking

Consequently, the availability and supply of scientific evidence, on the nature of problems and effectiveness of solutions, is a necessary but insufficient condition for evidence-informed policy. Three others must be met: actors use scientific evidence to persuade policymakers to pay attention to, and shift their understanding of, policy problems; the policy environment becomes broadly conducive to policy change; and, actors exploit attention to a problem, the availability of a feasible solution, and the motivation of policymakers, during a ‘window of opportunity’ to adopt specific policy instruments.10

Tobacco control represents a ‘best case’ example (box 1) from which we can draw key lessons for ecological and environmental policies, giving us a sense of perspective by highlighting the long term potential for major evidence-informed policy change. However, unlike their colleagues in public health, environmental scientists have not developed a clear sense of how to produce policy instruments that are technically and politically feasible, so the delivery of comparable policy change is not inevitable.[12]

Box 1: Tobacco policy as a best case and cautionary tale of evidence-based policymaking

Tobacco policy is a key example – and useful comparator for ecological and environmental policies – since it represents a best case scenario and cautionary tale.[13] On the one hand, the scientific evidence on the links between smoking, mortality, and preventable death forms the basis for modern tobacco control policy. Leading countries – and the World Health Organisation, which oversees the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – frame tobacco use as a public health ‘epidemic’ and allow their health departments to take the policy lead. Health departments foster networks with public health and medical groups at the expense of the tobacco industry, and emphasise the socioeconomic conditions – reductions in (a) smoking prevalence, (b) opposition to tobacco control, and (c) economic benefits to tobacco – most supportive of tobacco control. This framing, and conducive policymaking environment, helps give policymakers the motive and opportunity to choose policy instruments, such as bans on smoking in public places, which would otherwise seem politically infeasible.

On the other hand, even in a small handful of leading countries such as the UK, it took twenty to thirty years to go from the supply of the evidence to a proportionate government response: from the early evidence on smoking in the 1950s prompting major changes from the 1980s, to the evidence on passive smoking in the 1980s prompting public bans from the 2000s onwards. In most countries, the production of a ‘comprehensive’ set of policy measures is not yet complete, even though most signed the FCTC.

Decide how far you’ll go to maximise the use of scientific evidence in policymaking

These insights help challenge the naïve position that, if policymaking can change to become less dysfunctional[1], scientists can be ‘honest brokers’[14] and expect policymakers to use their evidence quickly, routinely, and sincerely. Even in the best case scenario, evidence-informed change takes hard work, persistence, and decades to achieve.

Since policymaking will always appear ‘irrational’ and complex’[3], scientists need to think harder about their role, then choose to engage more effectively or accept their lack of influence.

To deal with ‘irrational’ policymakers, they should combine evidence with persuasion, simple stories, and emotional appeals, and frame their evidence to make the implications consistent with policymakers’ beliefs.

To deal with complex environments, they should engage for the long term to work out how to form alliances with influencers who share their beliefs, understand in which ‘venues’ authoritative decisions are made and carried out, the rules of information processing in those venues, and the ‘currency’ used by policymakers when they describe policy problems and feasible solutions.[2] In other words, develop skills that do not come with scientific training, avoid waiting for others to share your scientific mindset or respect for scientific evidence, and plan for the likely eventuality that policymaking will never become ‘evidence based’.

This approach may be taken for granted in policy studies[15], but it raises uncomfortable dilemmas regarding how far scientists should go, to maximise the use of scientific evidence in policy, using persuasion and coalition-building.

These dilemmas are too frequently overshadowed by claims – more comforting to scientists – that politicians are to blame because they do not understand how to generate, analyse, and use the best evidence. Scientists may only become effective in politics if they apply the same critical analysis to themselves.

[1] Sutherland, W.J. & Burgman, M. Nature 526, 317–318 (2015).

[2] Cairney, P. et al. Public Administration Review 76, 3, 399-402 (2016)

[3] Cairney, P. The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making (Palgrave Springer, 2016).

[4] Langer, L. et al. The Science of Using Science (EPPI, 2016)

[5] Breckon, J. & Dodson, J. Using Evidence. What Works? (Alliance for Useful Evidence, 2016)

[6] Palgrave Communications series The politics of evidence-based policymaking (ed. Cairney, P.)

[7] Practical lessons from policy theories (eds. Weible, C & Cairney, P.) Policy and Politics April 2018

[8] Oliver, K. et al. Health Research Policy and Systems, 12, 34 (2016)

[9] Kingdon, J. Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (Harper Collins, 1984)

[10] Gluckmann, P. Understanding the challenges and opportunities at the science-policy interface

[11] Cairney, P. & Kwiatkowski, R. Palgrave Communications.

[12] Biesbroek et al. Nature Climate Change, 5, 6, 493–494 (2015)

[13] Cairney, P. & Yamazaki, M. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis

[14] Pielke Jr, R. originated the specific term The honest broker (Cambridge University Press, 2007) but this role is described more loosely by other commentators.

[15] Cairney, P. & Oliver, K. Health Research Policy and Systems 15:35 (2017)


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy