What if those in politics could get past what's right and what's left to what's right and what's wrong? That's naive, of course, but it doesn't mean that science couldn't improve the way we decide those big policy questions

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 this week 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.


This is the start of my post at tvnz.co.nz. To continue reading, click here. But feel free to add comments and debate below.

Comments (10)

by Mr Magoo on May 13, 2011
Mr Magoo

Sorry to be a cynic (read: realist) again but this government has shown time and again they do not care about science or research in decision making. They care about PR lines and that is pretty much it.

Labour cared about it a lot more (but not enough) and got accused of hiring too many back office consultants etc.

His fundamental assumption is that governments want to make "good" policy. Unfortunately what he seems to fail to realise is that they only want policy that is "good" for their public profile. Other policies are not "relistic enough" - even if they are actually the best policy once all the political baggage is removed. This is so tru it is just a cliche nowadays and I fail to understand how someone so smart could suspend his disbelief enough to make such a naive statement.

Are we really saying that our little pea-brained democracy is going to accept hiring a whole bunch of scientists as well as consultants now? What exactly has changed? And do we think this government would even care about such a thing?

You have  to be joking me??

My restating of this idea:

  1. The people are not rational when it comes to policy or politics and therefore the governments that pander to them are restricted in what they can pass and still remain in power.
  2. However the sensible and rational thing is to have more research driven policy rather than PR driven policy.
  3. So all we need to do is put more into researching policy and the public will be more rational.

That is simply not going to work. I blame the lizard overlords that run the world.

by Draco T Bastard on May 14, 2011
Draco T Bastard

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

He may have said it but it doesn't mean that he actually means it and, as he's a proven liar, I'm pretty sure he doesn't. Or, more precisely, I'm sure the only results he's interested in is the transfer of our wealth (asset sales, tax cuts) to himself and his rich mates.

by Andin on May 14, 2011

"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"

Pity they don't grow on trees these "reasonable non specialist" commoner's. Tho' if they did that tree would need careful nurturing, through its early developing years and a certain amount of "training" could I say.

Maybe politicians think they do just grow on tree's and drop to the ground fully formed. Ouch! not on the head.

by Iain Butler on May 15, 2011
Iain Butler

Well, Sir Peter got his wish on a Ministry of Science and Innovation in February last year... let's hope his report predated that change, or it suggests a worrying lack of - dare I say it - peer review and co-ordination.

BTW, a bouquet is needed over the recent changes to the sanction regime for driving offenses.  In recognising that lots of high-risk drivers respond better to the threat of losing their license than racking on fines on their 'tab', this Government has made a change based on some sort of research into driver behaiviour (don't ask me if it was good, peer-reviewed research, but it gells with the attitudes I've experienced first hand working in the old Courts Dept of Justice.

sadly, this rational thinking was the work of Simon Power, soon to be lost to Parliament. Let's hope the Hyde to his considered Jeckall - Crusher Collins - doesn't get her talons into the Justice portfolio.

by Ben Curran on May 15, 2011
Ben Curran

I've been thinking recently that it would be a grand thing if we had more scientists (don we have any?) in parliament. Just a 2 or 3 in each of the main parties maybe. So that there is someone at that level who could communicate how the science could inform policy both to their colleagues and the public. Just to embed a little knowledge of whats possible in the process. We've got precious few good science communicators in this country though, fewer still that appear to have any political inclinations.

by Tim Watkin on May 15, 2011
Tim Watkin

Damn those lizard overlords, Magoo! They always get their slithery tongues in the way.

But yes, you are too cynical. I'm not sure you can dismiss "this government" as anti-science without some evidence. More money for the Marsdens and a better structure for the Crown science institutes must earn them some brownie points.

And Sir Peter's job is to push for science in government, so it's hardly "naive" of him to do his job. He'd be an arse if he took the job then said, 'they're politicians, they'll never listen, so why even try? I'm off home with my pay cheque'. Points for trying, no?

And Ben, good point. Wouldn't it be nice? I'm trying to think who fits the bill currently. Pete Hodgson? Rodney Hide? Nick Smith - does engineering count? Steven Joyce the zoologist? Who else?

by Ben Curran on May 15, 2011
Ben Curran

An engineering background would be better than naught I suppose. Wishful thinking I know, but than just people with a science degree, I'd want people who have actually been researchers at some point. A degree will give you a basic understanding of a particular field, working in research you get more familiar with large scale studies, finding out how to find out what is possible that sort of thing. And instead of being presented with conclusions you actually have to assess the data and figure out what's happening. Something that is only touched upon at degree level. As I said, wishful thinking.

He's always worth reading but Ben Goldacre's latest column is a take on science in policy formation:


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