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December 08, 2010

Where is the evidence about evidence-based policy?

The UK government has recently decided to remove the requirement to have scientists as members of its drugs advisory committee. Moreover, the “bonfire of the quangos” involves abolishing or changing the status of many other independent advisory bodies, from those that advise on hazardous substances and pesticides, to dangerous pathogens and the safety of blood, tissues and organs.

Given the nature and weight of the questions at stake it would seem inevitable that research-based expertise would itself be applied to these decisions. One might imagine that the full force of collective expertise, built up over years of careful research, with the advisory process itself as the object of study, would be focused on the questions at hand.

This reasonable assumption is, however, false. It is false because of a contradiction that lies at the heart of the expert advisory system: the system itself has developed with scant regard to relevant academic expertise. Policies for scientific advice have evolved over years of experience, trial and error, incremental changes, and periods of innovation in reaction to events.

This of course is not a criticism of the current system or its architects. But where a particular area of government policy has at its core the aim to promote the effective use of expertise in policy, it is worth wondering why it itself seems to be such a hard case. One reason is quite straightforward: there isn’t much consolidated research on the scientific advisory process.

Research on the advisory process has generally taken place through one of two lenses: there are studies of the production of scientific knowledge; and there are studies of policy and politics. There is a marked lack of research on the relationship between the two.

It is high time that this situation was remedied. We would like to see fostered a research community that takes scientific advice seriously as a topic for academic investigation, preferably in a way that builds alliances across academic disciplines, and also, crucially, with policy practitioners who work in this area, and also with those experts who have practical knowledge of what it is like to serve as expert advisers.

To this end, the Centre for Science and Policy is conducting a consultation to identify the key research questions on the relationship between science and policy. It will kick-start a process of prioritising the research questions so as to develop an important research agenda.

Of course this will take time, but we hope that it will lay the foundations for building a body of knowledge that will help inform the next iteration of the Government's science advisory system.

Rob Doubleday is Senior Research Associate, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

Chris Tyler is Executive Director, Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

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