In the lead-up to the last Canadian federal election, a lot of attention in the science policy community was dedicated to addressing the freedom of scientists to speak: the muzzling issue. In short, without the freedom to share results, analyses and conclusions, federal government scientists had no reasonable hope of having their work put the evidence back into evidence-based policy. In my presentation to the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science (CSHPS) in Calgary a few weeks ago, I touched on another facet of that discussion, one that’s gotten a great deal less attention: the freedom of policy analysts to interact with those scientists (though apparently they’re getting at least some attention as well). From my experiences inside and outside the civil service, this is a topic that also needs considerable attention.
The gist of my presentation was the following: if we want to make policy based on evidence, then we need to “operationalize” our policy questions into empirical research questions to gather the relevant evidence. This translation of a policy question requires a negotiation between the policy sphere and the scientific sphere, and that plays itself out as a negotiation between policy analysts and researchers. Getting the negotiation wrong, especially by allowing one side to dominate the discussion over the other, results either in policy questions for which no evidence will be relevant, or research questions that address a policy question that no one is asking. In either case, it becomes too easy for policymakers to claim (rightly, in fact) that the evidence “doesn’t settle the question” or “doesn’t give a clear answer,” paving the way for the evidence to be passed over and not given its fair place among the considerations that go into policy development.
If indeed these negotiations are as important as I’m suggesting, then we need to pay close attention to the relationships between our policy analysts and our researchers to make sure that they have the tools and support they need to operationalize questions effectively. One situation in which those relationships break down is produced when very steep bureaucratic and political hierarchies hollow out the power of low-level policy analysts, the ones who are predominantly interacting with research staff over the course of a project. When top-down control is applied, low-level analysts are not empowered to either share policy positions (decided upon by those above, and not shared down the ladder) or to make decisions where positions have not yet been staked (thus “usurping” the power of those above). This hollowing out means that the policy sphere can’t be properly represented in the negotiation with the scientific sphere, and the operationalization of the research question is thereby jeopardized.
From these points, I drew the conclusion that we must be wary of such possibilities. We must remain vigilant about the structures, practices and cultures at the science–policy interface to ensure that they remain conducive to a genuine dialogue between these two spheres. Ultimately, my presentation ended with a call to action: we–and here I mean particularly as historians and philosophers of science–have considerable experience moving back and forth between scientific and humanistic discourse, smuggling insights across typically sealed borders. That experience and critical power is one that can be very helpfully applied in a mediating role between the scientific and policy spheres, easing negotiations. To do this, though, we need to overcome some of our own fields’ cultural boundaries: namely, we need to step out of our ivory towers.
Note: All views expressed are those of the individual author and are not necessarily those of Science-Metrix or 1science.