Week 7: Using evidence in decision making

This week, we turn to the ubiquitous role that evidence plays in the decision making process.  Quite obviously, societal decisions do not simply depend on the weight of the evidence and can turn on ideology, norms, beliefs, history and path dependence, but, particularly in key areas of technology policy, the assessment and use of evidence in decisions can play a central role.  Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government has an excellent piece on the nature of evidence in policy making including the politics and institutions surrounding the use of evidence.

One surprisingly underused approach is to make better use of history and some of our colleagues here at Cambridge are leaders in the History and Policy movement (including some nice historical perspectives on surveillance and privacy and on the Green Revolution).  A more common (but still underused) approach is to try to actively gather evidence in the form of randomised control trials.  Building on the success that RCTs have had in the biomedical sphere, there have been calls for greater use of RCTs in policy, led by Ben Goldacre, the Guardian columnist and author of Bad Science, who also contributed to the Behavioural Insights Team report ‘Test, Learn, Adapt’.  More generally, there has increasingly been a view that more evidence-based policy-making can lead to a ‘new era in responsible governance’ as described in the recent study by the Pew Trusts and the MacArthur Foundation.

This has, unsurprisingly led to a backlash against RCTs from one side and against the way in which evidence-based policy is used on the other hand.

For some cases such as that of climate change, there is a massive apparatus aimed at translating evidence into policy in the form of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its recurring assessment reports as well as the Subsidiary Body on Science and Technology Assessment to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  For most other issues though evidence is contested but it is almost as if the process of gathering and using evidence is reinvented each time and pursued in a very ad hoc fashion.

Pick an issue near to your heart or one you would like to learn more about (ideally one we haven’t discussed already and something considerably simpler than climate change) and try to answer:

  1. How has evidence (scientific or otherwise) been used in the decision making process?
  2. What is still unknown that would help improve decision making and is there a way of actually gathering some of that evidence such as through an RCT?
  3. What are the barriers to greater use of evidence (politics, entrenched positions, the cost or impracticality of RCTs, timing, etc)?

This is quite a wide remit for a short blog post, so feel free to pick a related news article and critically analyse it from the perspective on evidence gathering and assessment.