Evidence-based science policy?

I was mildly amused to unearth this 1985 take on science policy, and to sample the grumpy reviewer I seem to have been on that subject. I was writing science policy news daily back then, and I recall getting pretty bored with the arguments, and with the rubbish level of argument – a mood I ascribe now to the impatience of youth. I also had the inexperienced policy journalist’s idea that I could do it all rather better. A year working for the Advisory Board for the Research Councils just after this taught me otherwise…

I’m still tempted to point to the paragraph from Averch quoted below and say “plus ça change”, but maybe others more involved than I am these days know better?

Advance a scientific argument that lacks clarity, precision, or rigour, and a colleague or rival will pull it to pieces soon after. But the chances are that your critic will happily tolerate vagueness, woolly definition and sloppy logic in a case for more research funds. The growth of science and technology budgets over the past 30 years has offered little incentive for researchers to abandon this double standard.

Harvey Averch’s A Strategic Analysis of Science and Technology Policy offers a cool look at the arguments used in the debate on science policy that shows why scientists are now disarmed in the face of tighter purse strings and government insistence on clear justification for new spending.

Averch is a policy analyst turned administrator, and he is puzzled by the failure of scientists to maintain the standards of debate he learnt to apply in other fields. When he went to work for the US National Science Foundation he found no critical tradition in science policy. Analysis was still informal, qualitative and intuitive. Funding agencies and their constituents were obsessed with marginal changes in overall budgets, Averch argues, because they had no mechanism for setting priorities to produce a balanced research portfolio. His summary of American experience also rings true for Britain.

“Any percentage drop (in funds) is seen as disastrous for scientists and research performers, particularly those at universities. They speak as if they have little capability to adapt, substitute and compensate. In contrast, for an increase of a few percentage points, they promise truly significant differences in performance or rate of discovery, and yet the new resources will not be used much differently than the old resources.”

If you have read the small print of proposals on science policy, you know what he means. But the book is stronger on diagnosis than cure.

He looks at American debates in a range of areas – industrial innovation, science education, scientific and technical information and trade in research results – and he examines the claims, appeals and dire warnings deployed by the interested parties. The detailed annotations of the arguments he provides are valuable maps of the landscape, but they do not make it clear how to reshape it.

He is also equivocal over the difficulty of going further. On the first page, the book states that the way science and technology research translates inputs into outputs remains a mystery. And Averch recognises that there are special problems in assessing the effectiveness of investment in science. Yet, in the end, he insists that there are other equally difficult areas of public choice (unspecified) where proper policy analysis has made headway.

Overall, he is convincing on the need for sharpening arguments about science policy without giving too many clues about how to do it. The same asymmetry marks Deborah Shapley and Rustum Roy’s Lost at The Frontier, subtitled “US Science and Technology Policy Adrift”. The authors, a journalist on Science and a laboratory director and materials scientist, also point to the system’s lack of any mechanism for setting priorities.

They want to reform the American system to tackle new problems, and their list of problems and solutions sounds very familiar to a British reader. They argue that the US faces a worsening trading position in high tech industries, has poor links between basic research and industry and weak applied research. They claim that the US supports a university research community which feels insecure and relies on out-of-date equipment. More money is not the answer, but more selective research support, better science education and backing for new, science-based companies probably are.

Anyone tempted to take comfort from this evidence that current British soul-searching about science policy is matched in the US should pause over the final item in Shapley and Roy’s list of dire warnings. If their prescription is not followed, they write solemnly, “US science and technology could go the way of Great Britain”. (1985)

(Harvey Averch. A Strategic Analysis of Science and Technology Policy. Johns Hopkins.

Deborah Shapley and Rustum Roy. Lost at the Frontier. ISI Press.)

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