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The Challenge of Evidence


The challenge of evidence

That there can be a correct ‘dosage’ as discussed above, leads on to a discussion surrounding the hierarchy of evidence, and how its usage can serve to mute the effectiveness of evidence-based policy, due to perceived primacy of some forms of evidence over another. Indeed, the choice inherent within evidence-based policy, and identifying and using some evidence in many cases aligns with a tendency of many policymakers to base their judgments on evidence to use on well-established beliefs they already hold. This can also be seen as discussed earlier in this paper in addressing the time pressures both within policymaker’s time horizons alongside the time it takes to develop high quality and applicable research necessary for the development of an evidence base on which to inform policymaking (Cairney and Oliver, 2017).

A core argument that challenges the objectivity of evidence-based policy is the ways in which one can begin to draw links between interventions and evidence. Indeed, a number of scholars point out that “How evidence-based policy is taken up by policy-makers and researchers in the human services will depend on the context in which it is practiced and the ongoing effects of its disciplinary origins.” This points towards to the contextual environment in which evidence-based policy finds itself in (Marston and Watts, 2003). One cannot assume that the timing of the collection and collation of evidence will clearly align with the time in which policymakers will seek to make interventions. This again points to the roles in which values can play in the development of evidence-based policy, as basing policy interventions on out of date evidence, can in itself be a value-laden decision that seeks to achieve particular policy aims which may no longer be relevant, or indeed in line with best practice.

We can see a core challenge which faces evidence-based policy and its objectivity as is discussed within (Lindblom, 1980) wherein the author highlights that in many respects evidence-based policy struggles due in part to the “the policy process comprises many activities in which scientific rigor rubs up against power, interests and values.” This leads back to an earlier point, namely that the policy development process in many cases constitutes a number of compromises that are necessary to ensure legitimacy across groups, as well as to reach an agreement which competing interest groups can be satisfied with the interventions which are taken and indeed how evidence is employed in the service of their values and objectives.

There has also been a broader discussion surrounding whether the pursuit of value-free evidence is at all desirable. This can most notably be seen in the medical field; however, it is likely the debate will have particular relevance when applied within the policy field. Some scholars, most notably (Parker, 2017), acknowledge, “Accepting that values are an integral part of evidence-informed policymaking is an important first step; the next challenge is to think about how they might best be incorporated.” The challenge of incorporation, however, seems like a debate, which most logically fits into current discussions within the policy field, specifically as it is an arena wherein objectivity, ideology and power compete to influence decision-making. This leads one to view evidence developed through value-based considerations not as a discriminatory factor against using evidence-based policy, but instead a more nuanced understanding that evidence and the application of evidence in pursuit of policy are to be expected, and the incorporation of this evidence to be considered through this particular lens.


Jason Deegan

Jason Deegan is a PhD Candidate (Stipendiat) and research fellow at the University of Stavanger. His work primarily focuses on; Innovation, Regional Studies, Smart Specialisation and Policy.

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