Category Archives: Evidence and Policy

Rethinking knowledge translation for public health policy

We live in a world where populist political projects are reviving the latent suspicion of many that elites, intellectuals, and their allies are not to be trusted. The public good, so the argument goes, can only be advanced by listening to ‘the people’ and at the same time by limiting the role of traditional elites and their academic allies. The inevitable response is that some of these same elites double down on the critical importance of science and evidence as the basis for government action. There are repeated calls for ‘evidence-based’ (or at least ‘evidence-informed’) policy as a partial offset to the populist and-intellectual surge.


Uris Library Cornell (Source: Flickr)

But what does it take to actually move scientific knowledge into policy? While much has been written about this I recently published an article, with my friend and colleague Steven Hoffman, that seeks to bring to bear on this question some insights from the political science literature on the policy making process. We use the case of public health to argue that all too often efforts to do move evidence into policy rely on mechanistic and unrealistic views of the process by which public policy is made. As a result, traditional dyadic knowledge translation (KT) approaches may not be particularly effective when applied to public policy decision making. However, using examples drawn from public health policy, it is clear that work in political science on multiplicity, hierarchy and networks can offer some insight into what effective KT might look like for informing public policy. To be effective, KT approaches must be more appropriately tailored depending on the audience size, audience breadth, the policy context, and the dominant policy instrument.

You can read the full argument here.


A clash of ideas is not a war on science

(This first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on October 10, 2013)

dna-pictures4The Professional Institute of the Public Service will soon release the results of a poll of scientists employed by the Government of Canada. The poll results will fuel an already-heated debate about what some feel is a “war on science” waged by the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

However, the problem is not so much a war, as it is more a mix of politics and competing visions of the public good.

First, if there is a war on science, it has been going on for some time. There is an ongoing debate about the role and place of science in the making of public policy. Moreover, since the 1990s, successive governments, Liberal and Conservative, have limited funding for government labs while increasing funding for university-based research and development. Similarly, the pressure to increase the commercialization role of federal labs did not begin with the current Conservative government but began in the late 1990s, if not earlier. This may weaken the ability of the federal government to regulate and make policy but it is not new.

Second, while we might agree that the scientific research funded by or done directly by government should serve the broader public interest, we do not agree on how to define it. Traditionally, much of government science was linked to the policy and regulatory process in areas like health and the environment. Yet a major part of this science has always been linked to promoting economic growth by using government labs to develop new technologies linked to such things as nuclear energy, agriculture or biotechnology.

The Harper government, like the Liberal governments before it, believes that economic growth is in the public interest and government science should be directed to support that goal along with more traditional public interest objectives like limiting pollution and products that put human health at risk.

Third, a big part of the current debate turns on how best to balance the right of a government to control what is said in its name and the right of scientists to freely talk about their research.

Many of the current rules governing what federal government scientists can say, to whom they can say it and when are ridiculously restrictive.

Scientists working for the Government of Canada should be able to speak freely about their research. We are not well served by a government that is excessively preoccupied with controlling the message in order to secure short-term partisan advantage.

However, government scientists are public servants and, unlike university researchers, they have a responsibility to avoid overt criticism of the government of the day. This is challenging when the media goes looking for a gap between government science and government policy and, having found it, tries to convince us this is a problem.

Finally, we need to ask if scientific evidence alone should determine public policy. Science does not and indeed cannot be the only basis for public policy. The opposite of evidence-based policy is not, as some of the critics seem to assume, ideologically driven chaos. Our elected representatives are tasked with making judicious choices that balance scientific evidence, public opinion, job creation, economic growth, environmental protection, trade and foreign-policy objectives, and much else besides.

In essence, much of the current debate about science and government is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of democratic politics. Nothing is gained by saying “science” is good and “politics” is bad. This is a caricature of both science and politics and the relationship between the two.


Inside the black box: science, politics and healthy public policy Notes for an address to The Ontario Public Health Convention, April 1, 2014



Yesterday I had the honour and the pleasure of speaking to The Ontario Public Health Convention.  The title of my talk, “Inside the black box: science, politics and healthy public policy” gives a good sense of the themes developed in my presentation.  I specifically made an argument about the limits of evidence for making public health policy, presented some key ideas about the policy process arising from political science theories of policy making; and ended with a short defense of “politics”.

A copy of the notes for my presentation is available here.

Scientific evidence alone is not sufficient basis for health policy


This photo shows a view down the middle of a boron nitride nanotube. Credit: Vin Crespi, Pennsylvania State Physics. Distributed under the Creative Commons license

Earlier this year two senior officials from the US and UK governments got together to write a short commentary in the BMJ provocatively (but appropriately) entitled “Scientific evidence alone is not sufficient basis for health policy“.  Some highlights:

Based on experience as researchers and as policy makers at the White House and United Nations, we argue that although science should inform health policy, it cannot be the only consideration.

Although it may frustrate scientists when politicians are swayed by the possible electoral consequences of various policy options, few scientists (including us) would want to live in a society in which politicians completely ignored the views of those who have elected them as their representatives. Voting, free speech, debate, and the push and pull of politics must have an important role in what free societies choose to do if the concept of democracy is to be meaningful.

To say that an advocate or policy maker is guided by more than technocratic considerations is a compliment and not an insult.

In the rapid response to their commentary someone effectively asked if it is possible to find anyone who would defend the position that science alone should determine (health) policy.  Admittedly, this may be a challenge.  However, the implicit assumption in so much of the writing in health policy is that policy decisions should be based on evidence.  The very large literature on knowledge translation, at least as it applies to public policy, seems to assume that the problem to be solved is finding the best ways to bring to the attention of “policy makers” (who are rarely if ever defined very clearly) the best available scientific evidence.


Source: Safe Kids Kansas Coalition

Debating the merits of Tamiflu

Source: Social Science Space April 15, 2014

Source: Social Science Space April 15, 2014

A few weeks ago, the British medical journal the BMJ published an article that offered a critical appraisal of Tamiflu.  While there have been other bits of research that challenge the efficacy of Tamiflu and the decisions of governments to stockpile the medication in anticipation of a flu pandemic, this most recent article was remarkable because it was a systematic review and was prepared as part of the Cochrane reviews.

For the uninitiated, a systematic review is quite different from an individual study.  Rather, as the Cochrane Library puts it: “A systematic review attempts to identify, appraise and synthesize all the empirical evidence that meets pre-specified eligibility criteria to answer a given research question. Researchers conducting systematic reviews use explicit methods aimed at minimizing bias, in order to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision making.”  And Cochrane reviews have been described as “the highest level of evidence on which to base clinical treatment decisions.”

Serious stuff.  In other words, when a Cochrane review is published, people stand and take notice.

The political result of the publication of the review critical of Tamiflu was a chorus of criticism of governments that had stockpiled the medication at a cost of millions of dollars, pounds, Euros and yen.  Some even have begun to refer to the vaccine as “Scamiflu”.

Source: Twitpic

This does not mean, however, that systematic reviews, be they from Cochrane or elsewhere are faultless.  Therefore, almost as soon as it was published, the article that was so critical of Tamiflu attracted its own chorus of criticism (see also here and here).  Critics pointed to what they saw as flaws in the analysis and argued that the study as such did not justify the conclusion that governments were wrong to stockpile Tamiflu.  Some pointed out that in the real world of policy making governments have to manage risk and that the Cochrane systematic review did little to consider.

I am not qualified to evaluate the claims and counterclaims.  And I am cynical enough to ask about the motives of the various parties in the debate.  Having said that, governments are routinely faced with having to make decisions when the evidence is conflicting and where they must balance clinical effectiveness against public confidence that the health system will be able to protect them from harm.  In this case governments opted to stockpile Tamiflu, knowing it might only be somewhat useful.  However, in the face of the prospect of large number of people dying in the event of a serious pandemic, being able to do something, however limited, is preferable to being able to do nothing. This is the real world of politics and difficult political decision making.

More generally, I think that a systematic review critical of Tamiflu appeals to those of us who are, justifiably I think, quite critical of large pharmaceutical companies and their motives and ultimate goals.  In other words, combine a nascent mistrust of Big Pharma, add a systematic review done by the Cochrane collaboration no less, and you inevitably get a torrent of criticism not only of the drug but of the governments who spent large sums of money acquiring it.

Yet it is in the nature of scientific inquiry to subject any given study to critical appraisal and this case was no different.  Systematic reviews, even the best ones, are not the final word on an issue.  And when it comes to translating scientific research into policy, systematic reviews, be they good, bad or indifferent, are but one factor shaping policy decisions.  And as I and many, many others have argued, this is as it should be. Scientific evidence shapes and informs public policy but does not and indeed cannot determine policy.

Policy as Values

In July 2012 I published a short piece entitled “Policy as Values” in the newsletter of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy. While this was a response to an earlier item by my University of Ottawa colleague, Scott Findlay, I think my contribution stands on its own and may have continuing interest to a wider audience.

I am reproducing the piece here since it is no longer avaialble in its entirety from the ISSP.

ISSP logo

Policy as Values

Patrick Fafard

June 2012

Long ago and far away I took a course in philosophy of the social sciences. Surprisingly, this philosophy course involved a field trip and a very peculiar one indeed. On campus there was a small office in a bit of commercial space that housed, if memory serves, Technocracy Inc. The organisation was committed to advancing the cause of a rational and scientific approach to life in general and government in particular.

I have repeatedly encountered variations on this desire for a scientific approach to government, most recently in the blog post by my University of Ottawa colleague Scott Findlay provocatively entitled (at least for me) “Policy as Science”. To summarize and oversimplify, he advocates a rational policy process that selects among candidate policies in a rational manner, using the scientific method. My first inclination was to discount if not dismiss the argument by simply asserting that in real life things are not so simple and grumble about the hubris of scientists.

But the very fact that the desire for a rational approach to policy making is always present and, at first glance, quite seductive, demands a more fulsome response. There are any number of possible objections: much has been written on why policy making is not rational and indeed cannot be so. In fact, I have argued, as have many others, that policy making should not be reduced to rational problem solving.

But for the moment I want to focus on one aspect of the argument for a more rational or scientific approach to policy making. To reduce policy making to problem solving, as Scott suggests, assumes that we can agree on the nature of the problem and on the desired outcome. Let us consider each of these claims in turn.

Before there can be a policy choice there has to be agreement that there is a problem to be solved or at least one that government can do something about. In effect then, the art of governing is to choose the problems that will be addressed and which are to be more or less ignored. However, among the many challenges of governing is the simple fact that we do not always agree on the nature of the problem. I say Canadians eat too much salt, which causes widespread high blood pressure. Others say that there is no scientific consensus on the matter and scoff at the idea that there is a problem to be solved. In effect, fighting over how to define the problem and the science underlying problems is often a big part of the policy process – witness the debates about climate change or drug addiction.

Assuming we can agree on the nature of the problem (or at least most of us can, at least for a time) according to Scott a rational policy process would see us choose the option that is most likely to achieve desired outcomes. However, we are confronted by the reality that we are unlikely to agree on what is desirable. Policymaking is never only about solving a problem. It is addressing a problem in a way that is acceptable to at least some citizens some or most of the time. It is making decisions that advance a broader overall agenda if not a broader philosophy. It is addressing public concerns in a politically prudential way.

To return to the case of dietary sodium, we have no way of demonstrating unequivocally whether what is required is social marketing, industry self-regulation or government regulation of the food industry. And even if it could be shown that government regulation of the food industry is the optimal way to reduce the amount of salt in our diet, small-c conservative governments are unlikely to want to do so on broadly philosophical grounds.   Government regulation of food raises concerns about undue government influence in the lives of citizens. The latter objection cannot be resolved with reference to science alone. It is a normative claim and requires a different kind of reasoning altogether.

In effect, most of the truly interesting and non-trivial policy issues do not lend themselves to rational decision-making. Why? Because they involve disagreements over values and such disagreements, as Hume reminded long ago, cannot be resolved with reference to science alone.

Why INSITE is a not a good case study of evidence-based decision making.

Calls for evidence-based policy are routine.  And in Canada, the saga of the Vancouver safe injection facility INSITE is cited as an example of where politicians tried to ignore the evidence.  Consider two recent examples.

Source: iPolitics

Source: iPolitics

On Tuesday my university hosted a panel discussion by leading politicians in federal politics with an overriding theme of why young people should engage in the electoral process and, if nothing else, vote.  A laudable effort to be sure.  As is common with this type of event there were the usual questions of the audience.  Interestingly enough, the first such question asked the assembled leaders to comment on the place of evidence-based policy making.  Needless to say, all were quick to endorse the idea, some with more nuance than others.  Of particular interest were the comments of the New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair who went out of his way to point to the efforts by the current Conservative government to shut down INSITE as an example of ignoring evidence in policy making.

Consider as well a recent blog post by my University of Ottawa colleague Scott Findlay where he argues that the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to overrule the Government and insist that INSITE must remain open was about the proper use of evidence.  In his words, “evidence was critical to the Court’s decision”.  (Note that Findlay’s larger argument is not so much for evidence-based policy making as it is for transparency and openness).

Does this mean that the story of INSITE is the story of how evidence can and should influence public policy?  I think not.

As I argued in a paper in the Journal of Urban Health a few years ago, that INSITE continues to operate is not the result of a straightforward application of evidence to a public health intervention. In that article I argued that, on the contrary, “INSITE is the result of coalition building, the mobilization of public opinion, lobbying, and political and ideational struggle.” Without a doubt the use of evidence by the Supreme Court of Canada was a critical part of the story.  But to focus on that is to miss the fact that INSITE exists as a result of a complex combination of factors of which scientific evidence is but one.

hb_coverWhat is more, for many policy problems, this is the predominant pattern.  Evidence does play a role in policy making but it is most influential, as Roger Pielke puts it in his book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, “in circumstances where the scope of choice is fixed and the decision-maker has a clearly defined technical question”. So, it is not that scientific evidence is not important, it is that its role is variable.  In other words, while we may want evidence-based decision making, only some decisions can be, or for that matter should be based on evidence.