The Institute of Public Administration New Zealand (IPANZ) invited the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Professor Sir Peter Gluckman to speak at Te Papa last week. His lecture was entitled: “Communicating and using evidence in policy formation: the use and misuse of science”.
A copy of the speech is now available here.
Despite the best of intents, there is inevitably the potential for some cultural and attitudinal tension between those engaged in policy advice and those engaged in science (including social science and engineering). Because of these cultural divides, there are quite different understandings of policy development. Scientists tend to overestimate the utility of what they know and policy makers underestimate what they do not know. This can lead to a shallowness of policy argument, a promotion of political polemic and a narrowing of options. In some countries, think tanks, both public and private, are used to break down these barriers; but we have perhaps not the scale and certainly have not had the culture of such an approach. More broadly, we are seeing many participatory democracies give more focus on finding ways to improve the use of objective evidence in the processes of policy formation, implementation, and evaluation.
But, because of the dominant role of public opinion, anecdote and political process in policy formation, there is a problem – misunderstood or misconstrued evidence can intentionally or unintentionally warp policy making. This has two implications: First, how society obtains and understands scientific and technical knowledge is critical to a well-performing participatory democracy, and second, in discussing the role of evidence in policy formation we also need to be aware of the consequences of poor scientific understanding and communication.
Too often a piece of science is misunderstood, misused, overstated or downplayed – sometimes something is presented as established science when it is not, other times it does not suit advocates to accept the prevailing consensus of science. A scientific position can be can be established even when all the details may never be resolved or there is still debate over some details. Classic examples include the Darwinian theory of evolution and understanding of the origins of the Christchurch earthquake.