MP: politicians must understand ‘scientific’ policymaking

Adam Afriyie urges policymakers to test their preconceived ideologies against evidence

November 9, 2015

Politicians must understand how to use a “scientific approach” to policymaking rather than relying on “ideological” or “tribal” intuitions, according to a former shadow science minister.

Adam Afriyie, who became Conservative MP for Windsor in 2005 after a career in information technology, said that his “whole world changed” upon entering Parliament.

“I suddenly began to realise that the way politics works is not quite the same as how science works, or technology works – or even how sound reason or straight lines work,” Mr Afriyie told a conference in London on Parliament and academic research on 2 November.

Mr Afriyie is the chairman of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which offers MPs peer-reviewed briefings on scientific issues.  

He said that it was crucial that politicians understood the “scientific approach” to policymaking.

Rather than simply relying on their preconceived ideas, politicians needed to say to themselves: “I believe it should be that way, but let me set this up as an idea, and let me test it against the evidence”, Mr Afriyie argued.

“I think it’s really important that politicians understand that approach to politics and policymaking as well as the ideological, tribal approach, which, sadly, becomes necessary at times,” he added.

Mr Afriyie was shadow science and innovation minister from 2007 to 2010, during which he attracted controversy for saying that ministers should be able to dismiss scientific advisers “even if they just don’t like them”.

His comments followed the sacking of scientist David Nutt from his position of head of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after he criticised the government’s decision to reclassify cannabis from grade C to grade B.

Another speaker at “Research Impact and Parliament” was Jane Elliott, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council.

She questioned whether “evidence-based policy” was an appropriate term.

Professor Elliott quoted the US political scientist Kenneth Prewitt, who has argued that many other non-scientific factors such as personal experiences, political beliefs and so on also have an impact on policymaking, leading him to suggest that “evidence-influenced politics” might be a better term.

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