Why is evidence in policy important?
The world we are living in is changing; we are facing some of humankind’s biggest global challenges. From climate change and biodiversity loss, to rising inequalities, there are a myriad complex issues that need stronger policy action. In this context, there is increasingly a need for evidence to feed into the decision-making process of these pressing challenges.
Evidence-informed policymaking is the process in which public decision-makers take evidence from key scientific findings into account. At its core, this process deeply relies on an effective connection between policy, science and society.
What is the difference between evidence informed and evidence based policy? Isn’t it just two words for the same thing?
These two concepts are often used interchangeably. Both stem from calls for a more rigorous and widespread use of evidence in policymaking.
It may seem like a subtle difference, but in this case, terminology matters. The term “evidence based” seems to presumptuously suggest that science alone can (and should) drive policymaking. By contrast, the term “evidence informed” is more helpful as it also acknowledges the key role of political, cultural, economic and social dimensions inherent to any policy decision.
We are currently facing major global challenges, to which there are no simple policy solutions.
Consequently, there is a growing need to use evidence in these critical policy decisions. Most are wicked problems, in the sense that it is very hard to clearly define them and that there is no simple way to solve them. The climate and environmental challenges we now face are perfect cases of wicked problems that deeply rely on the integration of evidence and policy.
Using climate action as an example, how is evidence used in policy? What is the impact?
One flagship example of the impact of evidence in policy was the 1987’s Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Two years before, in 1985, a shocking scientific discovery had been announced, for the first time alerting the public that a massive decline in atmospheric ozone was taking place, commonly known as the “ozone hole”.
This global political mobilisation resulted in the ban of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which has had a lasting effect; evidence also has a significant role in the monitoring of this policy’s success- three decades after Montreal, the ozone layer continues to show signs of recovery and in 2018 NASA found that the hole was the smallest it had been since 1988.
Very often, critical decisions are made under a lot of pressure and the very nature of democracy makes policy complex and messy, making it hard to systematically integrate evidence into the process
Climate change is an even more complex problem than the depletion of the ozone layer. It has several different causes, a high level of uncertainty and no simple policy solution. Still, climate policy and international negotiations is another great example of how science can inform decision-making. The Paris Agreement of COP 21 relied on the work of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to get countries to agree to limit global warming to 2°C, while striving to stay below 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.
The IPCC’s Assessment Reports and Summaries for Policymakers are widely regarded as the reference publications on climate science, mobilising policy and decision makers around the world; nonetheless, the time lag of more than 40 years between the COP 21’s landmark agreement and the discovery of scientific evidence on man-made climate change illustrates just how challenging evidence informed policymaking can be.
What are the challenges in using evidence in policy?
Evidence should feed into policymaking; there is no doubt about that. However, the truth is that using evidence in policy is often a very complex process and the stumbling blocks along the way are numerous.
The world has never had a larger wealth of data and information, and that is a great opportunity to open up public debate and democratise access to knowledge. At the same time, however, we are currently living in a “post-truth” era, where personal beliefs can trump scientific knowledge.
Technology and digital platforms have given room for populists to question well-established facts and evidence, and dangerously spread misinformation, while accusing scientists and policymakers of elitism for their own political gain.
Another challenge is that political interests can strategically manipulate or select (“cherry-pick”) evidence that justifies prearranged positions. A stark example of this is the evidence “cherry-picking” done by climate change sceptics who choose restricted time periods (for example of 8 to 12 years) that may not show a global temperature increase.
In addition, to unlock the benefits of evidence informed policy, we need to bridge the “policy-research gap”. Policymakers are not always aware of the latest evidence on an issue. Very often, critical decisions are made under a lot of pressure and the very nature of democracy makes policy complex and messy, making it hard to systematically integrate evidence into the process.
At the same time, researchers may be oblivious to what the most pressing policy challenges are, or how to communicate actionable insights to a non-expert audience. This constructive guide provides tips on how scientists can handle the most challenging aspects of engaging with policymakers.
Institutions like the European Commission’s in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre (JRC) sit precisely at the intersection between science and policy. Researchers from the JRC work together with policymakers on several key policy challenges. A nice example is their work on the scarcity of critical raw materials needed for the EU’s energy transition, using a storytelling tool to raise the awareness of non-experts on an extremely complex issue.
Lastly, we cannot forget about the importance of the buy-in from the public. Although policymakers can willingly ignore or manipulate evidence, they have very little incentives to ignore the will of a critical mass. Let us go back to the climate movement; it is hard to dismiss the influence of the youth-led worldwide protests on world leaders and their climate policy efforts.
Using evidence in policymaking is key to solving the world’s most pressing climate and environmental challenges. To do so effectively, we need to connect and establish trust between government, researchers and the public.