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Tim Watkin: Politics needs science


By Q+A's Tim Watkin

Published: 6:33PM Thursday May 12, 2011 Source: ONE News

Politics is often described as a contest of ideas, and so it is. But because politicians only get to implement their ideas if they can win the support of the majority, simple and populist ideas often float to the top of any policy debate.

Politicians learn quickly that if you can't explain a policy to the infamous "man on the Clapham omnibus" - a reasonable, but non-specialist person - you're knackered before you even begin.

Here in New Zealand, what's loosely called "ideology" has been a powerful force in politics, often appealing to voters' guts rather than their minds, and sold in spurious marketing speak, such "three strikes" or "Iwi/Kiwi".

While it goes way back, it was especially prevalent under the fourth Labour government and the following first-term of the Bolger government as they embarked zealously on a free-market experiment with the TINA ("there is no alternative") argument.

But what if there was another way? What if we could get behind the rhetoric and ideology?

John Key has often said he cares about results, as recently as yesterday dismissing as foolish, "a strict adherence to ideology rather than what works".

Which makes a recent paper by Key's Science Adviser Sir Peter Gluckman such interesting reading.

With a title like "Towards better use of evidence in policy formation" it sounds like something only a policy wonk would care about. Perhaps. But it's got great implications for government policies that hit us all where we live.

Essentially, Sir Peter wants the government to use science more and better when it comes to making decisions.

In opening, Sir Peter sums up his core point:
"Democratic societies make decisions and policy based on many inputs, including fiscal considerations, societal values, prevailing public views, and the ideals and vision of the government of the day. But democratic governments want to make good decisions and at the base of such decision making should be the use of high quality information and evidence&"

Currently, he says, government departments are all over the place in their use of science - some do, some don't; few scientists work in the public sector; some evaluate and monitor programmes, some don't; much public sector research isn't peer reviewed. You get the drift.

Sir Peter even reveals that those responsible for science in government departments don't meet regularly, and worse, "until I held discussion sessions with them, many had not met each other".

Which is pretty dire, I must say.

It seems that New Zealand is missing an opportunity to be more rigorous, more practical about the way the country is run. And whatever else we are, we are supposed to be a practical people.

Don't worry, I'm not so naive as to think science could overcome politics, which is as much an art as a science.

Sir Peter suggests that better scientific research could help governments avoid being trapped by "a popular or political perception that [certain policies] are effective when in fact they are not".

Some hope. Look at the climate change debate. Some folk will swear black is white, regardless of science.

And of course, scientific facts can be interpreted in many different ways, leading to many different policy ideas. For example, Maori social statistics have undoubtedly improved in the past generation, since "affirmative action" policies have been introduced.

Some will argue that means they're a success; other that the change hasn't been fast enough and therefore they're failing; others again that it's a coincidence and other factors are at play, and still others that, regardless of whether they're working or not, such action is unfair.

It all depends on your world view. So in and of itself, science isn't a path to policy perfection.

Sir Peter knows this, observing that, "a purely technocratic model of policy formation is not appropriate".

Indeed, he spends a lot of words in the paper discussing the limitations of science.

The will of the people - the wisdom of the crowd, you might say - must remain at the heart of government decisions; we wouldn't want to hand over control of the country to detached scientists any more than we'd want to hand over control to unions, merchant bankers or foreign interests.

Cost, social values and diplomacy are all other vital considerations our politicians must consider when deciding how to fix this or change that. And there will always be a place for policies that are true 'hail Marys', which politicians decide are simply worth a punt.

Yet without thorough research, peer review, and proper monitoring, it's too easy for the wisdom of the crowd to morph into the rule of the mob. Bringing more research and science into our policies could save time, money and lives, and help hold politicians to account.

And we could certainly do with less dogma. A greater use of science wouldn't need to kill off the art and instincts of politics, just test them against "rational assessment".

Consider a few examples - research shows that the more liquor outlets in a neighbourhood, the worse the level of teenage binge-drinking; that the sale of cigarettes is extremely sensitive to price; that the better trained infant teachers are, the better the outcomes for the child later in life; that one of the biggest drivers of crime rates is the percentage of your population who are young men; and so it goes on&

In areas where emotion and anecdote can quickly cloud judgment, a bit more of that rational assessment would be invaluable, wouldn't it? At least in raising some questions.

Sir Peter wants government departments to each have scientific advisers to interpret science to their non-scientific bosses, to create a registry shared by departments so that they all know what research is being done and can tap into each other's expertise, and perhaps even a separate Ministry of Science and Innovation.

If we're serious about being a knowledge society and economy, then we need to put that knowledge to work for the greater good. To me, putting a bit more emphasis on evidence-based policies sounds just like common-sense.

Tim Watkin is a producer for Q+A - Sundays on TV ONE from 9am. Read more of his articles here .

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