Too much instinct, too little evidence in policy-making, says Gluckman

Peter Gluckman

The New Zealand public service is in "dire need" of building "basic competencies in research methodologies and critical appraisal skills" to improve the quality of policy advice and outcomes, says the government's chief science advisor, Peter Gluckman.

In a report on the role of evidence in policy formation and implementation, Gluckman reports a highly variable approach to the use of scientifically rigorous evidence in recommending, implementing and assessing the impacts of new public policy.

In some cases, senior public servants seemed to prefer "to work from their own beliefs or rely on their own experience."

"At its extreme, I find this deficiency to be unacceptable," he said, noting concern also about departments that rely "primarily on internal research of questionable quality and/or commissioning external advice that was not scientifically peer-reviewed."

While there was excellent practice in some parts of the public service, but "some policy practitioners held the view that their primary role was to fulfil ministerial directives, rather than to provide an evidence-informed range of policy options on which Ministers could develop a position."

"Surprisingly, this was held in some departments that most need to use objective evidence in their day-to-day operation," Gluckman says.

Without naming names, he recommends the appointment of chief science advisors to the Ministries of Health, Education, Business, Innovation and Employment, Transport, and the Department of Internal Affairs.

"Education policy is an area where it is easy for received wisdom to determine policy," the report says. "Values are often conflated with evidence, again making obvious the need for independent scientific advice."

The trend towards science advisors had been under way in other countries since the 1990's, when it was pioneered in the UK public service, said Gluckman. However, in New Zealand "there has been insufficient attention paid to proactive investment in research needed to support policy formation.

"For at least the last 20 years, our public research funding bodies have not prioritised policy-relevant research, resulting in disconnect between central agency needs and funded research priorities," said Gluckman.

Some agencies assumed "their primary mandate is to implement political decisions", which devalued the role of evidence-based policy making and evaluation.

"It can be argued that these issues are particularly acute in a small country such as New Zealand," he argues. "Inevitably we have a less complex system of connectivity between elected officials, policy makers, the public and the media. This, combined with the pressures created by a very short electoral cycle, results in greater potential for evidence to be ignored.

"While the political process is influenced by anecdote, it must be noted that the plural of anecdote is not data."

The report argues there will be growing need for evidence-based research to help inform public debate on policy options, especially as the pace of new technological discoveries increased, many of which would face challenges to their public acceptability.

While public values could often legitimately be at odds with formal assessments of risk, having objective, evidence-based research to inform the inevitable debates was increasingly important, Gluckman said.

(BusinessDesk)

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11 Comments & Questions

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I agree. The evidence from the global surface temperature record clearly shows no global warming for the past 17 years. Therefore it is impossible for CO2 to be having a significantly dangerous (or even merely adverse) effect on the environment.

Let's get back to the observational evidence as the good Dr. Gluckman so rightly demands.

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Another problem is the selective use of data to "prove" a point. One needs to look at all the science, not just the convenient bits...

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Hear hear. And did the good professor point Mr Key to this evidence and advise him against imposing the costly ETS? I think not.

And will the professor's proposed introduction of research into education result in a fact-based approach to Crown-Maori history? Not likely. Judging by the evidence of the last 40 years of Treatygate make-believe, not likely.

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Hear hear. And did the good professor point Mr Key to this evidence and advise him against imposing the costly ETS? I think not.

And will the professor's proposed introduction of research into education result in a fact-based approach to Crown-Maori history? Not likely. Judging by the evidence of the last 40 years of Treatygate make-believe, not likely.

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Why do you need empirical evidence when you can have "models" which conveniently tell is that we should tax rich countries and send the money to poor countries so they can buy cars and coal fired power stations. Just give me another million dollars and I will be able to get it to confirm global warming AND align with old school science like real temperature measurements. Come on, just another million dollars. You can trust me, I'm a scientist.

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No, you're wrong about that in fact. All observations show that the GST has continued to rise. The rate of rise has slowed somewhat in the past ten years, but this is amply compensated for by the temperature increase at the middle and lower depths of the oceans.

The bigger deal here is that the oceans hold 93 percent of the heat in the planetary system, dwarfing the combined amounts in the atmosphere, land masses, ice caps and surface waters. If all the excess heat stored in the oceans since 1950 were transferred to the atmosphere we would increased the average temperature by 36 degrees.

Science. It works. Too bad policymakers don't get it.

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Never mind Aristotle's philosophy on "prudent practical wisdom and common sense". Ignore Foucault and Lindblom on "truth politics". Turn a blind eye to the Westminster tradition. Max Weber is calling, and he wants his evidenced-based policy back. Sigh. From pediatrics to public management in one easy step.

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I have sympathy with his concerns, but in the departments he mentions a chief economic advisor would be more helpful in dealing with them than a chief scientific advisor.

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There has been discussion in Australia about an evidence-based approach to policy making:

The advantages of using an evidence based approach to policy making has been discussed by many researchers (see for example Argyrous, 2009; Banks, 2009; Othman, 2005; Taylor, 2005), with some common arguments emerging to support its application throughout the policy making cycle. Using an evidence based approach to policy making can provide the following advantages: ...
http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/lookup/1500.0chapter32010

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Agree AB111.
There is no lack of objective scientific evidence in the public sector. The problem is when the evidence is overridden by politicians' whims. They put a lot of pressure on bureaucrats to show them evidence of where black is white. If the bureaucrats don't do it, they hire a consulting company with a big name to put a seal of approval on the BS.

I do have a lot of time for Gluckman though. He wrote a good piece on 'science policy' which locates good scientific advice in the context of policy development, economics, public consultation, the law, feasibility, and common sense i.e. some pointy head doesn't know all of the answers, they need to look at all of the science and non-science angles.

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I hope he is drawing this finding to the attention of the prime minister,who possibly is the worst offender.
liberte

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