Science and politics – mix for best results

By joining forces, scientists and politicians can pack a policy punch, argues Keith Humphreys

March 27, 2014

Source: Dale Edwin Murray

The ability to convincingly document threats before they reach crisis levels is a literally lifesaving virtue of scientific enquiry

If you were constructing a new house, you would reasonably expect the architect and the engineer to collaborate. Each has distinct and valuable knowledge without whose application the finished building is likely to be seriously flawed.

Yet in the construction of public policy, most people are pessimistic that productive collaboration between politicians and academic experts can occur. This is particularly true in drug policy formation. Some scientists grumble – as David Nutt did when he was sacked in 2009 as chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs – about being ignored. Meanwhile, some politicians are infuriated when scientists present evidence that current policies are ineffective.

It need not be this way. Successful policymaking partnerships between academics and politicians are possible if, as in a happy marriage, each party appreciates the strengths and limitations of the other.

A small number of politicians are also accomplished scientists, but, in general, politicians and academics have different claims to authority. Politicians rise to their positions because voters elect them to exercise power over public policy; academic scientists rise to theirs by being accomplished scholars. Sometimes, each craves the authority of the other and is tempted to act as if it were theirs. For example, I once unsuccessfully advised a US politician who had moral objections to programmes that provided clean syringes to injection drug users in order to reduce infectious disease transmission. I told her that she was entitled to make a moral argument because she had, after all, been elected on that basis. But I asked that she stop buttressing that argument by repeating the verifiably false claim that syringe exchange programmes cause people to become intravenous drug users. However, she flatly refused to acknowledge that, as a trained scientist, I understood the relevant data better than she did. She went on spreading that untruth, and never consulted me again.

For their part, researchers sometimes behave as if science has the power to make difficult decisions for society. For example, it is fashionable in some academic circles to argue that because the currently illegal drugs have been proven to kill fewer people than tobacco and alcohol, science has thereby proven that all drugs should be legalised. But that represents a conflation of facts with opinions. The very same facts could be used equally reasonably to endorse tightened controls on alcohol and tobacco rather than elimination of controls on every other drug. Science can’t prove which policy option should be adopted. That’s what free speech, public debate and elections are for, and it’s dangerous to democracy for scientists to imply otherwise.

Academics and politicians need to stick to exercising their own, different strengths. Academics are particularly skilled at identifying emerging problems that elude casual observation, such as an increase in overdose deaths in particular neighbourhoods. The ability to convincingly document threats before they reach crisis levels is a literally lifesaving virtue of scientific enquiry. Without it, public policy responses may come too late to be of value.

Evaluation researchers, most of whom work in academic settings, are the primary source of high-quality information on the effects of existing policies and programmes. This is critically important in drug policy, where enormous sums are spent on programmes that promise to deliver benefits that may never materialise.

Innovation in policy-relevant programming also frequently emerges from the academy. A professor, for example, can create and evaluate a new intervention (such as providing the anti-overdose drug naloxone to drug-addicted individuals leaving prison) that a politician would be scared to touch in the abstract, but willing to endorse if it were proven effective. Without that vital input, the risk-averse culture of politics would tend to prematurely rule out many useful policy options.

Politicians bring different, equally essential skills. As much as it may irk academics, voters are rarely moved by the latest Lancet article. To attract support for a new policy, someone has to translate research findings and any policy implications into language that the public can understand. Few academics have this skill, but most elected officials of necessity do.

Second, politicians have deep knowledge of the policymaking process. They know when and where a study can have an impact, who needs to see it, how the voters will react and how it can be leveraged in the policy world.

With this demarcation of roles, academics expand the impact of their work and politicians obtain access to new information that can aid them in defending their stances on issues. The even bigger winner is society, which benefits from empirically informed, clearly explained and rigorously evaluated public policy.

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