Advice for Using Science in Policy

A little while ago the Bipartisan Policy Center published a final report for their “Science for Policy Project”, which I finally got around to reading recently. While it focused primarily on the use of science by the federal government, it also was fairly general in it’s suggestions

The purpose of this report was to consider the appropriate role of science in formulating policy and give recommendations that would hopefully produce “a more candid, transparent, and rigorous use of science in regulatory policy making and a more honest and thoughtful debate about regulatory proposals.”

The report was framed around three main questions (paraphrased by me):

  • What kinds of actions would lead to “politicizing” science?
  • How should advisory panels be put together and used to ensure independence and minimize biases?
  • How should agencies and advisory committees decide what scientific studies to consider and how should they be used?

Much of the report dealt with recommendations that would help increase the transparency of the process of using scientific expertise in formulating policy. I thought most of these seemed relatively uncontroversial and worth implementing at least in some general way. I think it also had a good point of saying that having these recommendations implemented as laws passed by Congress would be preferable to having them in place in a way that

There was also a section that focused on the process of peer review and how it’s viewed by the scientists themselves. While there is probably some room for improvement in this area, I’m not sure if I agree that this is an area that contributes significantly to perceptions of the politicization of science. So while this is probably an issue worth considering, it is probably much larger than what was considered for this report.

I thought the trickiest recommendations were those related to distinguishing more clearly between scientific judgments and political judgments. The authors argued that “some disputes over the ‘politicization’ of science actually arise over differences about policy choices that science can inform, but not determine.” In these cases people with differing political opinions may all be quick to try and claim scientific support for their side by arguing “the science made me do it”.

I’m not sure how easy it is in practice to draw clear lines between saying what scientific evidence shows versus having scientific evidence inform a political decision, but there is still something to be gained from making these distinctions as clearly as possible. Even in cases when someone is not guilty of letting their politics get in the way of science, the report has some good advice that might help minimize false perceptions of bias. When a scientist has the opportunity to influence policy it’s worth spending some time to think about how much they are speaking as a scientist and how much as a citizen that happens to know about science.