Joseph Lewis & Danielle Kopecky
June 2020

To what extent is policy ever 'science-led'?

Last week, the IES set out five principles for the UK’s recovery from COVID, one of which was our long-standing commitment to policies founded on scientific evidence. In line with that commitment, we’re taking the opportunity to look back at a 2011 discussion with our now-President, Sir John Lawton, in which he set out his views on the problems we face in pursuit of evidence-based policy-making. Evidence is crucial in the work we do to stand up for science, scientists, and the natural world, and as we push once again to put it at the centre of decision-making, Sir John’s lessons are a vital source of reflection.


Whilst all Governments want policies that are ‘evidence-based’, in practice this is not always true. During a recent IES Council meeting, Sir John Lawton presented how the successful translation of knowledge into policy is akin to an obstacle course of mythical proportions. There are, however, 11 identifiable reasons why the route of science into policy can be effectively blocked. These factors can lead to policy-makers choosing watered down evidence or even the diametric opposite of what the science suggests.    

A big issue is the understanding of science in a non-scientifically trained audience, a group to which the overwhelming number of politicians and senior policy-makers belongs. Lacking a scientific background, they often miss the crux of the scientific method; Karl Popper in his theory of ‘Falsifiability’ maintained that no theory is completely correct, but if not made inherently disprovable it can be accepted as truth. Sir John Lawton summarised this as how “science is organised scepticism, which has been tested to death”. These inherent issues can only be addressed by having long-term goals of improving general scientific education to bridge this gap.

At any point when a policy-maker is approached with the problem, the evidence, or the solutions, any or all of the following 11 reasons will be in play:

1) The Deficit Model: The problem has not been communicated clearly enough. If it had been understood in the way ‘scientists’ comprehend the problem, then the resulting policy would have been different. 

2) Uncertainty in science: Uncertainty arises in many areas of environmental science as little in science is definite. This ambiguity is exploited by lobbyists and interest groups. Politicians therefore become caught between the scientific advice and the lobbying of powerful interest groups, and make use of this “welcome warren hole”.

3) Media or interest groups influence on public opinion: The media is a powerful instrument in shaping the public opinion; unfortunately it can also be source of severely distorted information, for example the MMR vaccines. Reasons two and three go hand in hand since interest groups with vested interests strategically and selectively use information to pursue their own objectives, causing politicians to become conflicted in their decision-making. ‘Regulatory capture’ is when regulators are persuaded to regulate in the way that suits a particular interest group.

4) Lack of public support: Politicians perceive a lack of public support for the required action. In many environmental issues solutions require some sacrifice by the public and to successfully seek ‘long-term pain for no short-term gain’ is difficult. Put simply, people will not vote to disadvantage themselves, especially if it affects their lifestyle.  
5) Policy response is unclear:  Although the scientific evidence might be compelling it is not always clear which responsive actions should be taken. Air quality is a good example of this. The differing world views of the policy-makers - i.e. how they interpret the world and their personal belief systems - can lead to fundamental conflicts of value despite being exposed to the same information or evidence. Differing solutions can then be reached, and this problem cannot be addressed by the science. Ultimately it is often that these world views and belief systems have to be changed, making the process from science to policy long, messy and very difficult.  Again the media plays a role in promoting different world views. 
6) Other legitimate issues and constraints: Policy formulation must take into account many other factors, particularly cost. It is legitimate to avoid implementing something that is too expensive, but perceptions of the cost and the benefits of a potential solution vary depending on individual world views. 
7) Different timescales of subject and action: Environmental processes and politics work to very different timescales which results in conflict. For example, a short-term imperative, such as a politician winning the next election, and long-term environmental goals such as preventing run away climate change. This is a variant on reason 4. 
8) ‘Fragmental Incrementalism’: A term coined by social scientists, it refers to situations when there are many different actions going in different directions without a decisive route forward. This occurs when there is institutional failure, for example when there are two diametrically opposite policies in two different parts of government. 
9) International agreement: Policy development requires some international agreement, which is legitimate, but can be exploited as an excuse for inaction. Nations are not willing to be the first movers if it disadvantages their own economy.  Although perfectly legitimate for politics, this self-serving behaviour is detrimental to the environment. 
10) Wrong timing: The Government has agreed a policy after the expenditure of time and effort, just to be confronted with a new body of evidence. There exists a policy cycle and policy-makers tend not to re-examine issues that have been recently legislated. However on the flipside if the timing is right policies can be adopted instantaneously. 
11) Politicians are corrupt and don’t care about science: This thankfully is relatively rare. 

Reasons three, four, five and seven are dependent on the politicians own agenda, particularly their short-term imperatives. For any politician, a major influence is the potential impacts on their constituents. With the demise of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) and other advisory bodies there is a real danger of policy-makers creating policy without independent advice and/or evidence.


The lessons Sir John spoke to us about in 2011 are as important now as ever. These eleven reasons could be used as a framework to scrutinise whether policies that claim to be, are genuinely 'science-led'. As the IES puts evidence-based policy at the heart of its push to stand up for science, scientists, and the natural world, we need to remember that these are the barriers we are pressing against. Collectively, in our commitment to putting scientific evidence at the heart of national and global decision-making, we need to be vigilant to these challenges, and we need to work together to overcome them.

As Sir John reflects, it is often difficult to find concrete truths which can be the bedrock upon which policy is built, but the scientific method is the best tool we have to find a stable place to start. This is what it means for policy to be 'led by science': for evidence to be the foundation from which policies can grow, so that other priorities are considered, but never displace the foundational evidence which is fundamental to achieving coherent outcomes which actually solve problems. Where the barriers Sir John identifies arise, it is because evidence is being used as a vehicle for politics to achieve its own goals. In truth, for policy to be evidence-based, it must be the other way round: politics should be the vehicle which allows robust evidence to reach its natural conclusion.

Whether it’s the recovery from COVID-19, or the genesis of new environmental policy after the UK’s exit from the EU, or simply the day-to-day fight against environmental degradation, if we want scientific evidence to be at the centre of the Government’s approach then Sir John’s lessons will be as important as they were nearly a decade go.