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Some Thoughts on Reliable Evidence

20/01/2010

Having just given a paper on the impact of research on policy making, I return home to enjoy the spectacle of Alistair Campbell and Geoff Hoon giving evidence at the Iraq War inquiry.
If ever there was a time to question the relationship between evidence and policy, surely this is it…
My conference presentation argued that the more politicians fear a policy area, the more they rely on good quality research evidence. The less likely it is to scupper their career, the more likely they are to meddle.
Looking at a continuum of research from education through health to monetary policy, I contrasted the political fudging and chicanery to be found in education and public health policy making with the sophisticated data collection techniques used by the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.
Education policy never sank a government, so it suffers but, at least with those things most dear to the nation, it would appear that research evidence does impact on policy.
We know that this is possible in policy areas like education, though. Although our 1988 Education Reform Act, which brought-in the National Curriculum, was a scruffy last-minute cabinet compromise, our near neighbours made use of a systematic, 6 year research programme to provide the evidence base for the Danish 1993 Education Reform Act.
And it was going to be so different, wasn’t it? After all, New Labour brought us evidence based policy, evidence based practice, evidence based medicine… (What did we have before all this? Witchcraft?)
It is doubtful whether national policy has ever really been based on evidence in this country, we simply don’t do things that way, but now, as the Butler and Chilcot Inquiries show, wherever they can, politicians will meddle so that expediency, ambition and greed trump evidence every time.

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