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Labs Versus Lies? Evidence for Policy Making in Our Post-Truth World

19 Feb 2020

Labs Versus Lies? Evidence for Policy Making in Our Post-Truth World
In the past two months I’ve spoken at two events exploring the pathways and linkages between evidence, experts, research, policy decision making and social change.

One was "Evidence-Based Policies to Respond to Emerging Social Challenges", an official Side Event at the Commission for Social Development; the other, "From Science to Practice: Strengthening Research Uptake to Achieve the SDGs", was a multistakeholder view from International Geneva. Being a research institute itself, UNRISD obviously has a stake in the debates. Here are a few of the main points I made at these events.

Technocrats feel quite comfortable with the language of evidence-based policy. The theory of change goes that evidence shapes better policies and allocates resources more efficiently. But we have to recognize the current context of malleable truth and evidence. People are accessing evidence in different ways now, including through social media, and attributing the same weight to it they would have otherwise given an expert opinion. Some people are abusing that new information space to gain a “narrative advantage”. So at the same time as the UN is setting up SDG and innovation laboratories, the world has started to signal its distrust in experts, formal institutions, and the concept of science itself. The debates on immigration and even vaccination are polluted by less-than-rigorous evidence. We live in a world that could be characterized as “labs versus lies”. The answer is not to move away from science, but to persist. Yet we also have to recognize that the pathways by which evidence leads to better policy and action are under threat—and adjust our actions accordingly.

We also need to discuss what constitutes evidence itself. Nothing is neutral. Evidence is shaped by the experiences, ideologies and intellectual frameworks of researchers, policy makers, institutions, politicians and research funders. The latter can shape what research is done, by whom, how quickly, where, and through which methodologies. There is a strong preference among some research funders for quick quantitative research that only answers the rather narrow question: What works best? Broader and more critical enquiries are disadvantaged. In addition to the difference between quantitative and qualitative research, we have to be cognizant that how we do research can affect its findings and credibility: whether researchers are in or from the global North or South, and their gender and age make a difference, as well as what approach is used, for example emic versus etic, or interdisciplinary versus single disciplines. The answer is not to rely on any one approach, but rather to be aware of how these factors influence the quality and credibility of research, of the evidence it generates, and hence its ability to influence policy.

Lastly, there is no automatic mechanism for evidence to inform policy. It is not enough just to do the research. Often it is not enough to do the best research. To get their message across, researchers also have to think about the language they use to communicate research, about networks and modes of influence. And we all need to take on board that there is not one single “truth” from research. There will be different insights and viewpoints provided by different disciplines, with different policy implications in different settings.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.