The Art of Policy Making: What's Science got to do with it?

November 26, 2013

Revised text of a speech delivered at a public lecture hosted by
the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Science
in Vancouver

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

I’m delighted that you have chosen to be here today – to engage in a conversation about an issue that I believe is one of the most pressing of our time.

As the title of my presentation suggests, I plan to speak today about the art of policy-making … and its relation to science.

Let me start with a qualification.  As is evident to anyone who scans my curriculum vitae, I am not a scientist.  My academic background is in law.  

However in my past incarnations as a constitutional scholar and a cabinet minister in the government of British Columbia, I have had occasion to engage with scientists and with science, and to reflect upon the nature of their roles in relation to policy-making. 

Moreover, as a citizen, I have become increasingly interested in how science is treated in policy debates and in policy-making processes. 

It is from those perspectives that I speak to you today. 

I will begin by arguing that evidence, scientific and otherwise, is essential to generating good policy – indeed that it’s critical to making good decisions in every part of our personal, professional and social lives.

Now, I confess that I don’t expect much disagreement on that proposition. I suspect we will all agree that decision-makers should look to evidence to shape their policies, not allow their policies to shape the evidence.

But from my presentation it will also become apparent – I could say evident – that evidence cannot save policy-making from being controversial.  Indeed, in my discipline, evidence is something of a foundation for controversy.

Lawyers are experts at interrogating the evidence, exposing its limitations, and advancing conflicting proofs.  

But my concern is broader. When it comes to bringing the weight of evidence to bear on public policy, we cannot escape Philosopher David Hume’s insight that one cannot make an “ought” from an “is.” 

Facts disclosed by evidence, no matter how compelling, must still be evaluated and applied in light of personal and social norms. They must be tested against individual and community value judgments to establish what is acceptable and desirable.

Thus, as wrong as it would be for governments to ignore scientific evidence when crafting policy, it would be equally wrong for them to rely upon scientific evidence as a pretext for ignoring the will of the people to whom they are answerable.

It is for this reason that policy-making, while it must take account of science, is not a science. It’s more in the nature of an art.  And if we are to engage in art – and aspire for it to be great art – we need great capacity. We need diligence and craft.

That means we need to gather and respect the evidence.  But we also need deep commitments to personal responsibility and to democratic engagement.

In deference to the importance of evidence, I plan to make my case today on the strength of some examples, old and new – from the roundness of the earth to the reliability of climate science.

 My hope is that, by the time I am done, I will have convinced you of two postulates:

  • First, that sound, peer-reviewed science is essential to good policy-making; and
  • Second, that our best hope for harnessing such evidence for the creation of good policy comes through pursuing, promoting and facilitating deeper engagement amongst scientists, citizens and policy-makers.

So, let me start with one of the western world’s great thinkers, writers and policy-makers – setting off confidently, poetically and catastrophically on the wrong foot.

Thomas Jefferson, in his remarkable text for the U.S. Declaration of Independence wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

We’re all familiar with the thrust of this sentence, even if the grammatical construction is a tad dated.  People all too often make the same kinds of observation when trying to build support for their arguments. They say: “it’s beyond question” or “it’s just common sense” or, an old-time favourite of mine, “it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”

This is where we begin to go wrong. Of course, the Jeffersonians amongst you may complain that I have extracted his quote from its context … that the truths he held to be self-evident were “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This is stirring stuff, but by promoting it as truth – let alone “self-evident” truth – Jefferson ducks responsibility for explaining or justifying its component parts.

He tries to deny us the chance to ask, pointedly, exactly what he, as a slave owner, meant when he said all men are created equal.  And, for that matter, what “self-evident” status did he accord to women?

There are innumerable examples through the ages of self-evident truths that, once tested, proved to be fallacies – that the world is flat; that blood is circulated by the liver; that cranberries are a carcinogen; or that Rob Ford didn’t smoke crack cocaine.

One example I particularly like is that of maggoty meat. As the great scientists once knew with certainty, maggots erupt spontaneously from rotting meat – in the 17th century, it was an expression of the theory of Aristotelian abiogenesis.

Today, it’s regarded as self-evidently silly; due in large part to the scientific efforts of Italian physician and poet Francesco Redi.

The Ducal apothecary to Fernando il de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Redi had a thing about maggots.

So he began setting out pieces of meat in a series of jars that were left: completely open; completely sealed; or open to the air, but covered in cheesecloth to protect them from flies. Maggots emerged in the open jars and, briefly, on the cheesecloth, but not on meat that was covered or sealed.

Redi then nurtured the maggots through the next stage of metamorphosis to confirm that they turned into flies – the apparent progeny of flies that had laid eggs in the exposed meat.

Now, the next part was tricky. This being the period during which Galileo was wasting away under house arrest for the crime of demonstrating that the earth revolved around the sun, Redi recognized that the truth will not always set you free.

Even today, it’s sometimes risky for scientists to tell people in power that their preconceptions are wrong, especially if they’re politically or financially wedded to them.

So Redi went to the Bible for guidance on how to break the news. Instead of telling others “you’re full of worms,” he said “omne vivum ex vivo” – which roughly translates as: “All life comes from life.”

Not only did this sound better, it was backed by scientific proof and by Biblical scripture; Redi got no argument from the Church … and, lo and behold, people began covering their meat for more effective storage.

So, here we have an example of the three stages of bringing science to bear in the policy world. First, as any scientist will tell you, nothing should ever be accepted, uncritically, as self-evident.

Second, the moment someone insists that a truth is self-evident, it’s time to devise a test to prove that it isn’t.  Only if the test fails does the theory stand.

The third stage is moving a new theory from the lab or the library into the realm of the public, such that it may inform policy.

This is the critical point of engagement. It’s the point at which scientists are called upon to be creative and bold in explaining and disseminating their insights and discoveries.

It is the point at which political institutions – and citizens who wish to see those institutions function successfully – must also engage, to try to understand fully the impact of new evidence and to support solutions that are practical and acceptable to the people for whom – and to whom – those policies will be applied.

As Galileo, Redi or Darwin could attest, this process can be easy or hard, depending on the nature of the issue at hand.  

At the time of Galileo and Redi, it proved easier to convince commoners to cover their meat than to get churchmen to accept that they were not the centre of the universe.

Success, then, depends upon the strength of the science and, in hard cases, even more on the quality and credibility of the political actors and institutions that must act upon new information – on the artists who must create and enact good public policy.

Take, as an example, the threat of stratospheric ozone depletion.  In the early 1970s, Frank Rowland and Mario Molina, a couple of scientists from the University of California at Irvine, theorized that human-generated chlorofluorocarbons – or CFCs – were floating into the stratosphere, breaking down into their component parts and destroying huge amounts of ozone.

Rowland and Molina’s theories were widely tested and broadly validated – in part with physical observation: the stratospheric ozone layer was starting to thin dangerously and seasonal holes were opening over both poles.

This is a big deal. Stratospheric ozone absorbs most of the ultraviolet-B radiation coming toward the earth. Remove the ozone filter and you have an immediate increase in skin cancer, and, long-term, a potentially devastating impact on the survival of crops and marine phytoplankton – a bottom-of-the-food-chain staple in the world food supply.

I like this example because it’s not self-evident. It’s not “as plain as the nose on your face.” There is no element here of Fox News “truthiness.” You have to know a great deal about chemistry – or place a great deal of faith in chemists – even to begin wrestling with the issue.

But in the late 1980s, the assembled governments of the world met that challenge.

The process began with an international conversation and an exercise in global education. The media fulfilled its responsibility with diligence and integrity, running regular reports featuring scientists explaining the chemistry and doctors describing the risks.

This, in turn, gave credence and urgency to a series of international meetings that culminated, in 1987, with the Montreal Protocol, in which the world’s political leaders agreed that wealthy countries should go first in banning CFCs, in hopes that they would find an affordable way for all countries to shift away from the use of ozone-depleting chemicals.

The policy worked. Faced with a ban, industries in the wealthiest countries quickly developed alternative chemicals that equally quickly fell in price. By last year, on the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, the world had phased out 98% of the ozone-depleting substances.

Given the time lag – the long life that CFC’s have in the atmosphere – it will take until 2050 for the ozone layer to recover.  But the Protocol demonstrated how governments around the world can conceive and implement a complex science-based policy, and, in the process, save millions or even billions of lives.

Of course, ozone depletion was not the only issue of atmospheric science that was coming to world attention in the late 1980s. The concept of global warming – the chemistry underlying human-induced climate change – had been understood for more than a century and a half.  But by 1988, the world’s great powers were starting to take the issue seriously.

In that year, then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush said this: “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect forget about ‘The Whitehouse Effect;’ as president, I intend to do something about it.” 

Bush promised to convene an international conference on the environment. He said: “We will talk about global warming, and we will act.”

Well, as you know, there has been considerable talk. Former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 jointly with academics of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for their efforts in defining and communicating the problem.

But the talk – and the associated trove of Nobel-quality scientific evidence – has not resulted in actions that measure up to the challenge. As academics, as policy makers and as citizens, we have failed – abjectly – to produce policies that respond adequately to the science.

I suggest two reasons for this. The first, with due respect to Al Gore and the IPCC, is what Strother Martin (of Cool Hand Luke fame) once called “a failure to communicate.”  

The second is that climate change, which is complex enough from a scientific and communications perspective, also raises issues that are highly contentious in terms of policy. To tackle ozone, we had only to switch out the chemicals in hair sprays and refrigerants. This didn’t challenge anyone’s values or unsettle any deeply embedded social norms.

With climate change, the solutions call for fundamental shifts in how people live and consume energy. As with ozone, we must agree on a global policy. But unlike ozone, the policies in question might disrupt the conventional norms and everyday lives of virtually everyone on the planet.

So we have a much greater challenge. Climate change is harder to explain and harder to “sell” – we must ask much more of the public if we hope to solve the problem.

We also must do so at a time when the communications environment has changed more quickly and dramatically than at any time in history – and when our faith in democratic institutions is at low ebb.

Consider first the communications challenge.

Interest groups are prominent players in what has become a climate science communications war, as they were, to a much lesser extent, in the ozone debate.  

In the days before the Montreal Protocol, the companies that manufactured CFCs launched an anti-science campaign. They argued, as the tobacco industry had done before them, that the science wasn’t conclusive. The CFC lobby failed quickly and the tobacco campaign was eventually overcome. But in the battle over climate change, the stakes are much higher, and the investment in foot-dragging much larger.

The fossil fuels that are the principal cause of global warming are among the most useful – and lucrative – commodities on the planet. Indeed, for most of the past 10 years, an oil and gas conglomerate (either Exxon Mobil or Shell) has claimed the position as most profitable entity in the world – a dominance interrupted only once by the iPhone champions at Apple.

Given that action to mitigate climate change must necessarily involve cutting our consumption of these profitable products, we confront an interest group that, first, has a huge stake in the policy process and, second, is extraordinarily capable of pressing its case, publicly and politically.

We also live at a time of unprecedented change in how we communicate with one another.  We have the internet and the Twittersphere – media in which conversations occur widely, at a blistering pace, and without expert assessment or moderation.   

This is an important consideration in dealing with the kind of truths that are promoted as “self-evident.” The internet can provide a credible-looking source for pretty much any position you choose.

“Global warming is a myth?” – There’s an app for that.

“The world is only 6,000 years old?” – You bet. You can get Google-map directions to the museum.

Even Wikipedia, which could be lauded as the greatest peer-review experiment in human history, remains the most problematical research resource ever rebuffed by an undergraduate-level professor.

Meanwhile, mainstream media are both overwhelmed and underwhelming when it comes to the coverage of science. They’re overwhelmed by a proliferation of science literature and the increasing complexity of our world – and underwhelming as a result of their reduced investigative capacity.

We have ever-larger media conglomerates creating more and more portals with fewer and fewer staff.

The newspapers of record are in precipitous decline and the very idea of “beat” reporters – of subject area experts – has become anachronistic for all but the biggest news organizations. There are fewer than 20 full-time science journalists on staff at all of the newspapers and radio or television stations in Canada today.

That means the public dialogue is often being recorded and mediated by people who are out of their depth; most often, these are inexperienced reporters reliant upon others to give them the straight goods. And yet they are inundated constantly with information from advocates for every imaginable position, all of whom claim to have expertise.

Is it any wonder that we see stories on virtually every issue quoting one person on one side and another person on the opposite side. Such false equivalence is what now all-too-frequently passes for balanced reporting.  

Add to this the cost pressures on publicly-funded science and the constraints inhibiting government scientists from participating in the conversation … and the result is a polity poorly informed by evidence because the mechanisms for disseminating science are overwhelmed with noise – or simply broken.

In tandem with these challenges, we see few reforms to democratic structures that could enlist greater participation in difficult policy deliberations or build public confidence in democratic institutions.

On the contrary, engagement with and faith in our political institutions appears to be waning.  Electoral participation rates are in decline amongst almost all Western democracies. Voter turnout in national elections in North America and much of Europe has dropped by as much as 25% over the past four decades, with participation rates being lowest amongst younger voters.

The Law Commission of Canada concluded 10 years ago that decreasing voter turnout and increasing citizen disengagement from political institutions had produced a “democratic malaise.”

So, at a time when our capacity to disrupt natural functions is greater than ever – when we possess the technological instruments to cut the tops off mountains or to mine the deepest oceans for food or fossil fuels – we are increasingly compromised in our ability to govern ourselves.

We regularly, though not invariably, lack the strong democratic structures and practices we need to act wisely upon what we know, or ought to know.  I say “not invariably” because there have been some encouraging counter-examples.

One close to home demonstrates what can happen when policy makers, scientists, social scientists and members of the public engage directly and openly, and work collaboratively on the evidence before them.

This is an example that illustrates the potential for “strong democracy” to support the development of “good policy,” even when the issues are complex and the societal norms at stake are contentious.  The story originated in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a community that in the late 1990s experienced an epidemic of deaths among IV drug users.

In 1997, the City of Vancouver responded by creating a Coalition for Crime Prevention and Drug Treatment – comprising business, government, non-profit organizations and advocacy groups – to engage the community in addressing these deaths and the concurrent increase in drug-related crime.

As an outcome of that process, then-Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen in 2000 released a “Framework for Action: A Four Pillar Approach to Vancouver’s Drug Problems,” which proposed a strategy that concentrated on: Harm reduction; Prevention; Treatment; and Enforcement.

To build support and solicit public input on these four pillars, the City released discussion papers, held community forums, engaged with partner organizations, and worked closely with other levels of government.

In 2001, on the basis of these deliberations, the City formally adopted the Four Pillars approach, and the Coalition for Crime Prevention and Drug Treatment – renamed the Four Pillars Coalition – grew to more than 60 organizations dedicated to implementing the strategy.

No single agency was to be responsible. The Four Pillars Strategy relied on the coordinated efforts of the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Coastal Health, the BC government, Health Canada, the Vancouver Police Department, Four Pillars Coalition members and, critically, the community.

This extensive engagement did not result in unanimous support.  Some individuals and groups remained opposed to the strategy for philosophical, cultural or pragmatic reasons. But the process DID ensure that the public dialogue was evidence-based, and that the normative positions were informed by a shared understanding of their real-life implications. 

Perhaps even more significantly, the breadth and depth of community engagement ensured that the strategy enjoyed a much higher level of public support and a greater degree of legitimacy than would have otherwise been the case.

As a consequence, in 2003, the community was able to open Canada’s first – and still-only – freely accessible supervised injection site, a facility known as Insite.

In the 10 years that have passed since, injection drug users have used that facility a total of two million times. And while overdoses still occur (in 2012, there were 497), thanks to the intervention of on-site health care staff, there has not been a single death. Overdose deaths in the neighbourhood have also declined – by 35 per cent, compared to just 9 per cent in the rest of the region.

Peer-reviewed research by experts such as SFU criminologists Martin Andresen and Neil Boyd has shown that harm reduction has been achieved – that there are fewer fatal overdoses, there is less risky injection behaviour (which might otherwise have led to HIV/AIDS or hepatitis infections), and more users are choosing and maintaining addiction treatment.

In sum, the facility has saved lives and has saved money – in public safety, as well as in health care costs.

This was never an easy or uncontroversial conversation – nor is it today. Different people bring different values and assumptions to the table.

To some – such as politicians invested in conducting a war on drugs – it seems “beyond question” that we should be taking a harder line on injection drug use.

To others – such as health care workers who have witnessed extraordinary success in reducing local HIV/AIDS infection rates – “common sense” dictates that we replicate that success in communities across the country.

So, even with a compelling work in progress – and a continuing opportunity for artful policy-making – we still find that evidence, while a necessary condition for good public policy-making, is not sufficient condition.

We are reminded that even with the best evidence in the world, there will always remain questions and issues concerning how to evaluate that evidence and, even more importantly, how to balance it against other relevant considerations.

This process of evaluation and balancing is inherently normative. It will always bump up against the values, expectations and understandings of decision-makers and of the public for whom policy is being cast.

The only acceptable way to resolve such normative tensions in a democratic society such as ours is through democratic means. 

But, with issues as complex and contentious as drug policy and climate change, this requires citizens to have greater access to scientific knowledge, and greater opportunity to interrogate and process that information so as to reach decisions that are seen to be legitimate and are likely to be effective.    

The process that delivered the harm-reduction response at Insite met this test. First, it was evidence-based, and second, the community was given the opportunity both to evaluate that evidence and to participate meaningfully in the process of identifying solutions. 

This, in turn, gave governments the input and legitimacy they required to choose and implement a controversial initiative.

But that kind of process, which occurred at length and in depth in relation to harm reduction in Vancouver, is not often enough practiced in other contexts.

As is evident with the issue of climate change – and with many other contentious issues of environmental, economic and social policy – we are lacking in the “strong” democratic mechanisms that enable and support this kind of policy-making on a broad scale.

I am not suggesting that Canada is less than democratic by rough global standards. But as evidenced by our decline in voter participation, the kind of democracy we’re practicing these days seems dangerously weak.

My views in this regard are influenced by the work of the American political theorist Benjamin Barber, who argues that democracies can be thin or thick, weak or strong.

“Thin” or “weak” democracies offer little citizen engagement: instead, voters are called infrequently to elect representatives, who are then empowered for years to make decisions on the public’s behalf.

This may sound familiar. Cabinet ministers in Canada’s majority governments (often elected by a minority of voters) wield huge powers, and stand largely unanswerable between elections even to Opposition forces in their legislatures, let alone to the public at large.

“Thick” or “strong” democracies, on the other hand, engage citizens more consistently and fully in establishing and shaping public policies.  As Barber says, “In strong democracy, citizens actually participate in governing themselves, if not in all matters, all of the time, at least in some matters at least some of the time.”

The Four Pillars Strategy offers a compelling example of strong democracy at work – of a highly engaged and well-informed public playing a direct and positive role in the creation of a controversial public policy.  

But this is the exception more than the rule. Too frequently, we see a lack of commitment to the strong democratic structures and practices that could support more artful policy-making processes.

Let me return then to my broad thesis: evidenced-based decision-making works. It has saved hundreds from dying of drug overdoses in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.  And it has likely saved millions more from dying of skin cancer and starvation as result of the Montreal Protocol.

But evidence alone is not enough.

If it were, we could all retreat to our desks or our labs. We could content ourselves with conducting scholarly research and writing peer-reviewed papers – confident that, whenever one of us had a breakthrough, policy-makers would leap to the task of implementing a newly informed regime.

That doesn’t happen. As we have seen so many times in the past, we must engage. We, as academics, as scientists – as citizens – must find the fortitude of Galileo and the creativity of Francesco Redi to stand up for science and to advocate for evidence at every turn.

We also must listen. It is neither possible nor optimal that experts alone should determine policy. We must understand the needs and capacities of our own communities, and work together to find solutions that are most likely to succeed. And the most reliable mechanisms to reach this level of understanding and acceptance are those that are widely participatory and deeply democratic.

Civic institutions bear a responsibility in this regard, none more so than universities. 

I am therefore pleased that SFU last year embraced a new Strategic Vision that challenges us to be an “engaged university.”

We undertook to engage with our students, and to enable and inspire them to engage the world – as experiential learners, as volunteers, and as global citizens.

We committed to being a world leader in knowledge mobilization – encouraging our researchers to share their knowledge, insights and discoveries with communities, locally and globally.

And we resolved to engage as an institution with the communities we serve, around our campuses here in Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey … and around the world.

In addition, we specifically committed ourselves to serving as “BC’s public square for enlightenment and dialogue on key public issues … [to] be known as the institution to which the community looks for education, discussion and solutions.”

This, of course, is not the work of a single university. All civic institutions must step up to this challenge.

We have seen the good that can come when public policy is developed through broadly based dialogue that is informed by evidence.  And we have seen the dangers that can unfold when elites disregard the evidence and act in isolation from the public.

So, I suggest that it is our shared responsibility to create a culture of democratic engagement.

To this end, we must share our knowledge and our expertise.  And by “we” I most definitely mean to include “you.”

Even by attending this lecture, you identify yourselves as people who are equipped to advance these discussions in the public sphere – to ensure that we act on evidenced-based policy and not on policy-based evidence.

With your help, we can bolster the public conversations and support the democratic processes that are necessary to transform evidence and understanding into effective action.

Only through that kind of engagement can we assure that the policies we create will be remembered not as so much paint spilled on the pages of history, but finally and proudly, as living art.

[Revised text of a speech delivered at a public lecture hosted by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Science, Vancouver, November 26, 2013]