How science can influence policy

25 January 2012


This report was prepared by Matthew Dunstan.

There are certain practical realities when it comes to bringing the implications of research to the attention of policy makers. To discuss these and more, the Centre for Science and Policy ran a roundtable meeting of selected individuals from Whitehall and the University of Cambridge on 25 January.

Rohan Silva, Senior Policy Advisor in Number 10 and CSaP Policy Fellow, set the tone and led the discussion with his unique perspective and deep insight on politics and public policy.

Several areas of interest were discussed. It was noted that policy making works very differently within the Opposition as compared to the Government, and that Opposition can be much more receptive to new ideas proposed by those in research. In fact, generating interest in recommendations of research can be achieved just as effectively through engaging the Opposition, who are often searching for new policy initiatives.

Many participants in academic research were concerned about finding the most relevant contacts within the government, and how to ensure that their research resulted in real policy change. It was suggested that recommendations proffered by research were often more successful in Whitehall and elsewhere if they contained specific, granular and local proposals. Such proposals were subsequently much easier to implement in policy, and aided policy makers in identifying clear areas in which to focus their efforts. It was reflected that a certain observational bias can be present within government departments, and that better means for connecting different networks of people with those in central policy positions is needed.

The issue of navigating the complex system of government departments, politicians, policy makers and think tanks was raised, as well as determining the serendipitous moments when new ideas were raised at the right times to influence policy. Policy making is often driven by speeches, and times of high-density policy announcements – such as during Party conferences – can be a prime opportunity for researchers to engage with policy makers on new ideas. Commentators were brought up as an underleveraged resource for academics to approach, in particular with regards to creating the right atmosphere for those in government to be prompted to act where they had previously failed to do so.

Some participants remarked on the paradoxical lack of research on evidence based policy making – coupled with the fact that what social science research in this area there is, is often ignored. In response to this, it was noted that making direct connections between ministers and policy makers in Whitehall had been successful in the past, and that finding more ways to bring academics to Whitehall would be beneficial.

There was a concern that much like the political bias for ‘Big’ (rather than ‘Small’) Business, there was a bias towards ‘Big Science’, such as Astronomy and Renewable Energy, and that this bias was having a detrimental impact upon those working in equally important ‘Small Science’ areas. It was suggested that even a small shrinkage in budget expenditure towards ‘Big Science’ initiatives would allow for many new funding opportunities for research into supposedly less popular fields.

Other issues raised included the importance of long-term strategic planning for policy and how to accurately represent figures in policy and the uncertainties necessarily present in them. Also proposed was that policy makers adopt an alternative way of selecting an appropriate response to a given issue. Known as solution scanning, it involves collating as many of the possible approaches to a given problem before analysing them for the best solution. It was argued that good policy could rarely be proposed if the full range of options isn’t even known.

In closing the meeting, the Chair, Dr David Cleevely, CSaP Founding Director, thanked Rohan for his time and contribution, and commented on the importance of meaningful dialogue between policy makers and researchers and the critical contribution of networks and serendipity.

Banner image by dconvertini

Rohan Silva: Case study

Number 10 Policy Unit