Science policy
Budget 2018: The Evidence Budget
March 8, 2018
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In our post last week on the 2018–19 Canadian federal budget, we looked at how the new spending on fundamental research addresses the calls for support from the Naylor report. But there were many more science stories in the budget as well. Beyond the dollar figures, there are important—if tacit—signals in the budget document about another key item from the science file in Canada: using evidence to build policy. Today’s post attempts to decipher those tacit signals.

Dollars for data

The new budget provides a lot of money for science. It also emphasizes the importance of evidence-based decision-making to government, employing the term “evidence-based” about 20 times in the document. A lot of the new science money is earmarked to increase science for policy as well, separate from the fundamental science funding we discussed last week.

For example, Statistics Canada will get millions of extra dollars, in one-time injections as well as increases to ongoing, regular operating budgets. Why? “Better data will… support [the Government’s] commitment to evidence-based policy-making.” (p. 187). There are also hundreds of millions of dollars for science conducted within the federal government: labs and facilities (p.83) as well as highlighted projects (e.g., ocean and freshwater surveillance, p. 98). Again, all this is on top of the $925 million for fundamental research outside of government, administered by the funding councils. All told, that’s a big boost for research.

What about the uptake of that research in decision-making? There’s a whole section in Chapter 2 entitled “Placing Evidence at the Centre of Program Evaluation and Design.” The result? Statistics Canada gets $1 million annually to “improve performance evaluations for innovation-related programs,” and the Treasury Board gets $2 million annually to build an internal team for innovation performance evaluation, drawing on (among other things) the StatsCan innovation data.

Beyond that, the previous budget outlined $2 million annually for the federal Chief Science Advisor and her secretariat. That outlay doesn’t mention improving evidence-based decision-making, though it’s a key part of the CSA’s mandate. Together, what we see here is that there’s a huge disparity between the new money being spent on research and data, and the new money being spent to develop “a strong culture of evidence-based decision-making” (Budget 2018, p. 276).

Reading between the line items

The funding disparity suggests that the government feels that evidence-based policymaking is hampered primarily by supply-side problems. If we just pushed more science in the front end, we’d get a better flow of evidence through the policymaking pipeline. There’s almost no money to patch up whatever holes there may be in that pipeline between the research money inputs and the better policy outputs.

But is there reason to worry about a leaky pipeline? Senior bureaucrats emphasize the challenge of finding talent to bridge their internal science–policy divides. The federal Chief Science Advisor is considering whether the federal government should have a science advisor in each department. She and her provincial colleagues emphasized last month that three chief scientists alone will not be enough to turn the tide towards the use of evidence as “business as usual.”

While the headline messaging is much more positive, the latest evidence suggests that notable challenges linger under the current government in getting government science into policymaking. (The government isn’t even collecting those data; the public-sector unions are the ones keeping the evidence flowing.) Speaking on the issue of public discussion of government science—an issue closely related to the use of evidence for policy—the Minister of Science said she’s meeting with scientists to encourage them to speak up, suggesting she believes the problem to lie with the scientists themselves rather than the policy cadre to whom they report.

Her response also suggests that the problems we’re facing are ones that need to be solved by changes to individual behaviour rather than to institutional structure. On that point, the Chief Science Advisor seems to disagree, as she’s reviewing communications policies to see what institutional mechanisms might need to be fixed in order to make more progress. However, while adjustments to communications policies are relatively inexpensive, any notable changes to the institutional structure around decision-making are likely to require both money and political will.

Getting that kind of support will require the CSA to convince the relevant ministers (prime and otherwise) that such work is actually as important as their budget language says it is. For instance, we’ve seen professional incentives for scientists shifting more and more towards impact in recent years, but I have yet to read about any notable shifts in professional incentives for policymakers towards the proper use of evidence. One might be forgiven for believing that we’re happy to use concrete institutional changes to modify the science culture, yet when it comes to modifying policymaking, all of a sudden institutional culture is a massive yet ethereal entity upon which we can exert no influence.

On balance

In brief, evidence-based policymaking must be a collaborative effort between researchers and decision-makers. However, the budget endorses a linear model (and deficit model) of research and of policymaking. “Improved data … as well as greater access to such data, are essential to high-quality research and analysis, effective program design and delivery, and performance monitoring.” (p. 276) While that’s true, the supply of and access to high-quality evidence are necessary but not sufficient conditions for evidence-based policy. The linear view overlooks the reality of demand-side problems. Data and research can be available, but if there’s no demand for them, they simply don’t get considered. And they aren’t likely to get considered in the absence of concrete mechanisms to create the appetite for them.

We’ve seen a massive injection of money into research, but comparatively little into setting up the policy receptacle for all that work. It is heartening to see additional funding for science, but there’s also a need for a stronger evidence–policy interface. The view implied throughout the budget—in the language used as well as the funding distributed—is that mending this relationship is primarily an individual-level rather than an institutional problem, and that it is primarily the charge of the research community, not the decision-makers as well.

 

Note: All views expressed are those of the individual author and are not necessarily those of Science-Metrix or 1science.

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About the author

Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck is the Senior Policy Officer at Science-Metrix in Montreal, where he puts his background in philosophy of science to good use in helping policy types and technical types to understand each other a little better every day. He also takes gleeful pleasure in unearthing our shared but buried assumptions, and generally gadfly-ing everyone in his proximity. He is interested in policy for science as well as science for policy (i.e., evidence-based decision-making), and is progressively integrating himself into the development of new bibliometric indicators at Science-Metrix to address emerging policy priorities. Before working at Science-Metrix, Brooke worked for the Canadian Federal Government. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Guelph and a BA with honours in philosophy from McGill University.

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