So you think politics will make your evidence “dirty”?
3 October 2018
Author: Rose Oronje
As scientists, once we publish science, we lose control of how it gets used, and so arguing that understanding the politics of the decision-making process will get your evidence used to support or further existing political positions may not be valid. Photo: Diana Warira/AFIDEP

Having worked most of my work-life (since 2002) promoting and facilitating the use or consideration of evidence by policymakers in decision-making processes, I get very surprised when I encounter scientists who still believe and argue that scientists should steer clear of politics in their efforts to support the use of their evidence in decision-making. I had this encounter again in March 2018 at the Africa Evidence-Informed Policy Forum organised by the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) in Nairobi, Kenya.

Some researchers at this forum argued that as scientists, they should only focus on presenting their evidence to policymakers and not on understanding the politics because they don’t want their evidence to be used to further political interests. That’s a good point. But then again, is it really? Once a scientist publishes their research results, what would stop a politician from using it to further their political interests if the results support the politician’s interests, beliefs and values?

As early as 1979, Weiss conceptualised the different ways through which research is utilised by policymakers. One of these is the political model where policymakers use research that only supports their political positions, justifies decisions they have already made, or that support their own interests, values and beliefs. The point is, as scientists, once we publish science, we lose control of how it gets used, and so arguing that understanding the politics of the decision-making process will get your evidence used to support or further existing political positions may not be valid.

Talking of the “politics of the decision-making process”, what this argument by scientists means is that they don’t really appreciate or accept that the policymaking process that they want their evidence to inform is inherently political in nature. This is because public policymaking is about governments choosing the courses of actions they want to take to manage public affairs and/or respond to societal problems in order to achieve their goals. It often involves the distribution of scarce public resources. This process is therefore shaped by power and influence, i.e. politics. This means that scientists cannot run away from “politics” if they are interested in generating evidence that can inform the decisions of policymakers.

But why is it important for scientists to understand and engage the politics of the decision-making process?

Evidence is but one of the many factors that policymakers consider when making decisions. If as a scientist you believe in generating evidence that can be useful for decision-making, then you need to understand the other factors that policymakers have to consider, besides or at the expense of your evidence, when they are making policy choices. Understanding the politics of policymaking helps you as a scientist to understand the policymaking process and the political cycles, which are critical because they help you to plan and provide your evidence at the time when it’s needed most, or enable you to take advantage of windows of opportunity for influence when these open up. Understanding the politics of the policymaking process enables you to build and sustain relations with the right people in the policy space that you are hoping to influence with your evidence. Put dramatically, not understanding and engaging the politics of the decision-making process is like “shooting arrows in the dark and hoping that they will miraculously kill your target”.

So, what does it mean for scientists to understand and engage the politics of the policymaking process?

It means many things, but for this short article, I’ll just focus on three that I find critical. Firstly, it means at the start of your research when you’re defining your research question, you understand and pay attention to the gaps in existing policies, and the politics (power, interests) that shape policymakers’ actions on the issue. In my early career, I would feel very frustrated when researchers I worked with would forward me a paper that has just been published in a high-ranking journal, and ask me to “share the paper with policymakers”. Often, I would ask, “what is the specific gap in the existing policy that this paper is responding to?”. It was not uncommon to find researchers who did not even know the existing policy on the issue, let alone the existing policy gaps!

Secondly, it means building relations with policymakers and other key actors involved in the policymaking process. Unless if you are a magician, you will not be able to understand and engage politics without having meaningful, trusted relationships with key actors in the policy space that you are trying to influence.

Thirdly, it means understanding the context of the policy issue and the policy space that you are hoping your science will influence. Context could mean many things, but it is often “the elephant in the room” when it comes to making and implementing policy decisions. Context refers to the formal and informal rules and norms that guide people’s thinking and behaviour. Engaging politics means you strive to understand the context within which policymakers make decisions, which enables you to generate evidence that is responsive to the context or challenges the contextual limitations undermining efforts to resolve a development issue.

Science is not apolitical, or is it?

I cannot end this without asking the question: why do these scientists think their science is not already political? This thinking is connected to the “gold standard” tag attached to scientific evidence generated through certain methodologies that are perceived to be objective and neutral. In the health sector, biomedical evidence is often seen as the “gold standard” evidence that should inform health policies because of its perceived objectivity and neutrality. But social science scholars such as Lock and Nguyen (2010) challenged this, arguing that political and economic interests, and prevailing moral concerns are often implicated in biomedicine. The point I am making is that scientists need to acknowledge that even science from randomised controlled trials is not completely free of their own interests, existing societal pressures and biases, or contextual realities of culture, values and beliefs. So engaging politics cannot make science “dirty” because science itself is a product of politics as we know it.

Dr. Rose Oronje is the Director, Science Communications and Evidence Uptake, AFIDEP.

This blog is published in our latest issue of African Development Perspectives. Read more stories here.

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