Evidence-based policy and the precautionary principle

Post by The Rt Hon David Willetts MP

Professor Jonathan Grant and Dr Benedict Wilkinson make some very important points about evidence-based policy in the first post. In particular, I welcomed their point that whilst evidence has much to contribute to policy, it is – and should be – part of a wider mix. The decisions of political parties ought to be broadly predictable on the basis of their character and beliefs – they cannot just shift every time a new piece of evidence comes in.

Sometimes over-reliance on one specific piece of evidence can leave you vulnerable. I remember being influenced by Leon Feinstein’s very interesting paper for Economica in 2003 called Inequality in the Early Cognitive Development of British Children. He showed that bright poor kids fell behind rich dim kids by the age of 7. I served on Nick Clegg’s social mobility group and recommended this powerful evidence to him and he too was impressed and cited it. But Leon’s work was challenged by other academics because it was affected by reversion to the mean. The result was that the Guardian ran a piece that the Coalition’s social mobility strategy was undermined because the research on which it rested had been disproved. That is not, of course, a reason for giving up on evidence-based policy: but it is a reminder of how careful we have to be in using it.

Actually a lot of evidence is fed into our policy process in the UK – and the Coalition is good for evidence as there are colleagues sitting around the same Cabinet Committee who may not share the same tribal instincts but might respond to some good clear evidence. Moreover, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and the network of chief scientists in each Whitehall Department are powerful advocates of evidence-based policy. Sir Mark Walport is the Government’s empiricist-in-chief. The Fukushima crisis showed the enormous value of this system. Some countries – such as the French – advised their nationals to leave Tokyo because of the danger from nuclear radiation. Our then chief scientist – Sir John Beddington – advised that whilst it was a very serious accident there was not a danger which warranted such action. Nobody would have trusted a politician to make that assessment but our Chief Scientist was relied upon. Now the Japanese government is looking at whether they should create a similar post – and we have enormous goodwill in Japan as well.

The public response of EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger to Fukushima is, by contrast, a case study in what goes wrong when all empirical rigour is abandoned. He said: ‘There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well-chosen. Practically everything is out of control. I cannot exclude the worst in the hours and days to come’. Several well-respected British scientists – including Jim Al-Khalili, Simon Singh and David Spiegelhalter – rightly complained about this intemperate statement in an open letter to me as science minister. After that incident Scotland’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Anne Glover, was appointed as the first Chief Scientific Adviser to the EU. Her term came to an end with the old Commission but it is very disappointing that apparently the Junker Commission has decided to abolish the post. This is very bad news. The Commission does not have a good reputation for acting on the best available evidence and some, if not much, of the time, NGO campaigns get in the way of the scientific evidence as they have, to take two pertinent examples, on GM crops and nanotechnology.

This is where the Precautionary Principle comes in to play. Rightly understood, it refers to the extremely careful assessment of risk; all too often, however, it is misinterpreted to mean that nothing can be done until we know all the effects of some new technology. Innovations may carry risks but they are frequently lower than those presented by existing technology. The EU’s Physical Agents Directive 2004, for example, sought to manage the risk of exposure to electromagnetic fields. But it set the limits for occupational exposure so low that some procedures using MRI scanning in hospitals would have become illegal across Europe and instead there would have been more use of X Rays which are actually more dangerous. It took years of lobbying to get something more sensible.

There are arguments for changing the exact way the post of EU Chief Scientific Adviser is constructed. Anne Glover’s post was a personal appointment advising the President of the Commission and she did suffer from not having a solid base in the Commission’s directorates. It is not too late for Mr Junker to create a new post – or even better, a network – across the Commission. That is the right way forward.

The Rt Hon David Willetts MP was Minster for Universities and Science from 2010 to 2014 and is now a Visiting Professor at King’s College London.

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