This workshop will address the questions of evidence quality and methodological rigour with which policy-makers have recently engaged, and promote discussion with researchers on these questions through a series of case studies: HIV, alcohol and illicit drugs policy, climate change and income management. It will advance these debates through the presentation of policy-relevant theoretical papers on both the sociology of scientific practice and the traffic between the social and the scientific realms. Each of the papers will engage with current debates and reframe their terms, through discussions of science, policy and practice.
The need for public policy to be ‘evidence based’, and therefore for research to build an evidence base, is now part of the common sense understanding of the relationship between research and policy. This consensus generates significant analytic and normative implications: what counts as evidence? What should count as evidence? What considerations, other than evidence, should build policy? Historically, the barriers to evidence-based policy have been described in ethical, axiological and pragmatic terms, in other words as social problems, not the business of science. Recently, however, the separation of scientific evidence from social realms has been disrupted, and in ways troubling to scientists. The disputing of scientific evidence on climate change by lay publics, including politicians and journalists, is the most striking example of the blurring of scientific and social boundaries. Should scientists and policy-makers respond by re-establishing these boundaries? What should the relationship be between science, policy and public spheres? How can scientific research engage with the social, and what lessons can it draw from social research?
This workshop will address these questions in new ways, through engaging with international debates about research methods and epistemologies, and by bringing the important field of science and technology studies into conversation with policy research. A number of policy areas will be used to illustrate the issues that typically emerge: health (HIV/AIDS); environment (climate change); illicit drug use; and social wellbeing (income inequality).
Social science research is axiomatically concerned with the social, that is, with the connections between people at the interpersonal, collective and population levels. It is by its very nature concerned with the local and the particular, and context and contingency are always significant. But if it is clear that the ‘social’ is important in social science, what of the ‘science’? Are social science methods scientific enough to produce the evidence required for evidence based policy? One argument (from social scientists and others), is that the ‘messy’ concerns of social science are insufficiently objective and transparent for this. Hierarchies of evidence, this argument goes, have been established by stringent and validated methods in medical research, and the social sciences should accept nothing less. However, embracing this position ignores the contingent and complex nature of the social world: simple linear cause and effect relationships are highly unlikely.
The counter argument is also made (by social scientists and others): that scientistic models of knowledge are inappropriate for the social domain, and laboratory approaches cannot accommodate questions of power, ethics and values to which policy must be accountable. This approach emphasises the importance of values and principles to social concerns, and argues that scientistic approaches are therefore inadequate: because it is unethical to construct social policies as clinical trials; and because restricting discussions of child and family policies to questions of ‘what works’ autocratically imposes the views of experts on communities.
Yet these questions of science, values and evidence are far more productive than these two positions may suggest. If they represent opposite ends of the field, then the ground between them is proving to be extremely fertile. The relationship between the social and the scientific is being explored and refigured in two significant fields of research. The first is concerned with scientific engagement with the social, concerned with the social changes brought about by science. The second is science and technology studies (STS), or sociological studies of science, concerned with recognising the social dimensions in scientific practice and knowledge.
Scientific engagement with the social results from the recognition of the importance of the social to the implementation of scientific knowledge, and in many policy fields, there is increasing recognition of the importance of both scientific robustness and social meaning. In evaluation research of social policies and programs, this is resulting in the development of alternatives to the traditional counterfactual and other theory-led designs. In clinical research, data from observational and behavioural research informs new techniques of modelling the course of diseases and interventions. These developments in distinct fields, and the insights they provide into social engagement with sciences, have the potential to expand understandings of evidence in policy.
The sociological study of science is driven by the importance of social practices in the construction of scientific knowledge, and here new conversations are also warranted. While the social sciences have taken on the imbrication of apparently distinct domains –theoretical and ontological, material and epistemological, political and technical –in the biological and mathematical sciences , the relevance of these debates have yet to make a significant impact on debates about the place of scientific knowledge in complex social interventions. Actor Network Theory and other STS derives from studies in the laboratory and other ‘pure’ scientific spaces, and the rigour and richness of these approaches have not yet had much currency in research more directly concerned with the social. Yet the traffic between the social and the scientific in applied and social research has the potential to both be informed by STS, and to enrich STS with new insights and models of practice and knowledge.
In bringing together these two approaches to science and the social, this workshop will address and extend the current debates on evidence and policy. It will address the questions of evidence quality and methodological rigour with which policy-makers have recently engaged, and promote discussion with researchers on these questions through a series of case studies: HIV, alcohol and illicit drugs policy, climate change and income management. It will advance these debates through the presentation of policy-relevant theoretical papers on both the sociology of scientific practice and the traffic between the social and the scientific realms. Each of the papers will engage with current debates and reframe their terms, through discussions of science, policy and practice.