The unbearable lightness of research evidence


Can a politicians resign from public office because of insufficient use of evidence in policy making? Apparently yes. This is what Norman Baker has done by leaving his Home Office minister post in early November: Norman Baker resigns as Home Office minister with parting shot at May.

Norman Baker is a Liberal Democrat. His party has been in an (at times) uneasy coalition government with the Tories of David Cameron since May 2010. This uneasiness as well as the count down to next year general elections may be contributing reasons behind Mr Baker\’s resignation. However, I found it interesting to read that the cause of his disagreement has been that the Home Secretary, Theresa May (of the Tory Party), has provided to little support for a \’rational evidence-based policy.\’

The straw that broke the camel has been a report commissioned by the government to compare UK drugs laws with those of other countries, including those that have decriminalized drug use. The conclusion of the report is that the use of illegal substances is influenced by factors \’more complex than legislation and enforcement alone.\’

According to Mr. Baker, the Home Office sat on the report and its policy recommendations for more than three months due to the conclusions that shows that a tough stance on drugs does not result in lower drug use.

This internal UK politics  story is  interesting because it shows the inherent fragility of research evidence when it is confronted with politics, ie the approaching general elections in May 2015, power relations within the coalition government, the UK Independence Party threat in the Tories constituencies, etc.

Prime Minister David Cameron has provided his comments on the report with two points that research evidence will always find difficult to challenge: 1) The current policies by the UK government to confront the drug use problem are evidence-based and data shows that drug use is declining; 2) Nobody can say that the evidence brought by the report justifies one approach over another. In other words, research evidence is never conclusive and there is always room for new evidence.

While reading about the article about Norman Baker\’s resignation I remembered the title of a book by Milan Kundera that I read many years ago and which I think it can be paraphrased here to synthesize the challenges faced by research evidence in policy making: The Unbearable Lightness of Research Evidence.

Which book title  comes to your mind?


1 thought on “The unbearable lightness of research evidence”

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