By James

It’s hard to sum up the bad vibe without mentioning evidence-based policy – a phrase reverberating around the online echo-chamber when Professor David Nutt was sacked for stating that some drugs are more harmful than others.

OK, it was the second half of David Nutt’s message that probably got him sacked: some drugs are more harmful than others… and there is a disconnect between harmfulness and the severity in which the law dealt with individual substances.

Since then, evidence-based policy has become a watchword in Westminster circles.  Digital Opportunity a review of intellectual property in the digital era by Professor Ian Hargreaves  has a whole chapter dedicated to The Evidence Base.

A presentation by officials from the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) to the FAST Legal Advisory Group (FLAG) stated:

  • Evidence must drive policy
  • Development of the IP [Intellectual Property] system should be driven by objective evidence, not lobbying

But does a focus on a simple catchphrase have the potential to do more harm than good?

There’s no mention of quality of evidence, nor scientific rigour and scrutiny.  Evidence takes many forms, and some research groups charge £2,500 per copy for access to their reports.  It’s hard to have an open and public debate about the findings of any given report when such barriers to access exist.

I’m passionate about government transparency. I believe not only does the public have a right to see how policy is developed, but also that public participation in the legislative process leads to better legislation.

So it irks me when vested interests tout “evidence” backing their calls for legislation. Evidence that is not freely available for scrutiny.  Evidence that allows government policy makers to tick the evidence-based box.

An example is music industry lobbyists, who have made numerous claims as to the impact of online piracy on music sales whilst pushing for stricter laws to protect digital content.   Over time, many of these claims have been rebutted by recognised institutions like the London School of Economics.

Evidence is good – but the issues under discussion are complex, and good quality robust evidence doesn’t come cheap.

How can such research be funded, remain impartial and be freely available for public scrutiny?

Until we’ve solved the funding conundrum I fear that a drive for evidence-based policy will merely lead to industry-backed lobbyists being replaced by industry-backed research “institutions” concocting the “evidence” their paymasters demand.

Importantly, this has an unintended side-effect of making it harder for public pressure groups and citizen lobbyists to counter claims made by industry groups with vested interests; in that, the best way to counter Bad Science is with better science, and who’s going to pay for that?!