Do’s and don’ts for scientists who want to shape policy

Feb 10, 2017

By Eric Stokstad

Paul Cairney, a political scientist at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom, has a message for those who want facts and research findings to guide policy. “‘Evidence based policy making’ is a good political slogan, but not a good description of the policy process,” he writes on his blog, which has become a popular read for policy wonks. “If you expect to see it, you will be disappointed.” It’s a typically frank assessment from Cairney, who last year published a well-received book entitled The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making. But his goal isn’t to discourage efforts to inject evidence into statecraft; rather, he aims to arm scientists with some practical advice about the policymaking world that might help them do better. In a recent interview, Cairney offered some do’s and don’ts for getting involved.

Beware feeling left out.

Events like the election of fact-averse President Donald Trump can leave scientists feeling “that science has lost and feelings have won,” Cairney says. But many, if not most, government policies are developed by specialists, deep inside offices and departments experienced in policymaking. “That’s where scientists tend to have an easier ride and more of a place in the discussion.” And in some specialty arenas, such as analyzing drug risks or highway safety, “the scientific way of thinking” often dominates.

Don’t think the evidence speaks for itself.

“Well, it never does,” he says. “Don’t assume anyone cares.” Moreover, policymakers are already swimming in white papers, reports, and studies. A common refrain, Cairney says, is “I don’t have the time to consider all the information. How do I decide?” In that situation, scientists can play an important role as sifters, synthesizers, and analyzers.

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