Tag Archives: science

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.

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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.

Policy as Values

(This first appeared in the newsletter of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.)

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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 whether policy making is rational and many have argued that it 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.

salt 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 observe that 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.

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.

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