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It barely attracted any coverage when it was released following the Prime Minister’s post cabinet press conference last night, but Sir Peter Gluckman’s discussion paper on evidence-based policy is possibly one of the most important he has released thus far.

The Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister has made a call for government departments to improve the quality of and make better use of the scientific advice they use to inform policy decisions.

He said science is increasingly complex and non-linear and while scientific advice shouldn’t necessarily underpin every policy decision, New Zealand really needs to improve the way science is used in the government policy making process:

“…a number of examples exist where the lack of independence of the scientific advice and its conflation with other perspectives has noticeably biased the information available for decision-making and led to inappropriate outcomes.”

Sir Peter steers clear of pointing fingers, but looks at a couple of recent cases where scientific advice was ignored, overlooked or mishandled with serious consequences.

From 1999 to 2008, New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment (MfE) was involved in the remediation of the contaminated agrochemical site at Mapua, Tasman District. After withdrawal of the main contractor in 2004, MfE took over the resource consents and became responsible for management of the remediation process, which was subcontracted to the publicly funded developer of the novel remediation technology adopted.

The operation ran over time and over budget, and there was considerable local disquiet around possible air and water discharges of toxins. An investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment criticised several aspects of MfE’s involvement, but in particular focused on the lack of technical capability within the project team that took over the programme’s operational management.

This lack of technical expertise was found to have probably contributed to the poor operation and deficient monitoring of the remediation. ’If MfE is to perform operational functions, those functions need to be clearly defined and supported by the appropriate in-house technical capability.’

Looking further afield, Sir Peter examines the BSE outbreak in the UK, the handling of which by the British Government was a complete debacle:

Several observers have commented that the scale and duration of the crisis were at least partly attributable to the failure of MAFF to seek appropriate and independent scientific advice about the veterinary or public health implications of BSE.

In fact, in the initial stages an explicit decision was made to conceal the existence of BSE and to avoid consulting or involving scientific advisors. When external scientific advice was eventually sought, its recommendations were strongly constrained and influenced by MAFF officials who were also concerned with the commercial effects of any regulatory action.

MAFF’s repeated claim to the effect that policy was based on and only on sound science was a rhetorical cover for a set of covert political and commercial judgements masquerading as if they were scientific.

While he doesn’t name them, other examples of where policy decisions have gone against scientific consensus exist in the move to defer fortification of bread with folic acid (scientists say it is safe and cuts down on neural  tube defects), the move to defer a decision to lower the blood alcohol limit (the scientific evidence supports such a change), and the move to ban use of mobile phones in cars (the science suggests fiddling with the stereo or a GPS is just as distracting). The Government’s controversial draft energy strategy is arguably in the same camp.

Governments overseas have increasingly tried to bring government decision making in line with scientific evidence – or at least paid lip service to the idea. One innovative idea that has enjoyed some success is the UK Government’s Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills select committee’s Evidence Check programme. The committee reviewed the Government’s use of evidence in policy making on a number of issues, such as the licensing of homeopathic products by the MHRA and the diagnosis and management of dyslexia.

What can change?

Sir Peter is opening the issue up for discussion but a few things he suggests to improve use of science in government decision making include:

- Adopting some sort of peer view for scientific advice given to Government.

- Protocols and guidelines for using external scientific advisors.

- Crown Research Institutes clear the way so they can advise Government without worrying about commercial sensitivities resulting from private contracts.

- Focus more on social science research.

Some good material for discussion here and hopefully a conversation will start that leads to greater value being placed on science informing policy in government.

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