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10 February 2017

On the new Policy Forum Pod, Karen Hussey, Kathleen Segerson and Suzi Kerr discuss why public policy is often so removed from the evidence provided by science and economics, and what can be done about it.

In an ideal world, public policy would be grounded in evidence and research, drawing upon the best available knowledge from the disciplines of science, humanities and economics. In the real world, however, policy decisions are all too often divorced from evidence-based research.

In this week’s Policy Forum Pod, Karen Hussey, Kathleen Segerson and Suzi Kerr discuss the gap that exists between policymakers and academics, and what researchers can do to have a stronger voice and bigger say in policy formulation. Listen here:

Professor Karen Hussey is the Deputy Director at the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. She trained as a political scientist and economist, and has a particular interest in public policy relating to sustainable development.

Professor Kathleen Segerson is from the University of Connecticut. Her research focuses on the incentive effects of environmental policy. She’s a fellow of both the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, and the American Agricultural Economics Association.

Professor Suzi Kerr is a Senior Fellow at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, a non-profit research institute in New Zealand. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Victoria University.

Of all the modern examples of disconnect between policymakers and the scientific community, global inaction on climate change is probably the most notorious. Discussing the reasons why climate science has failed to be taken seriously, Professor Segerson explains that policy is comprised of not just knowledge, but also values.

“It’s human nature that your values tend to influence how you interpret information,” says Segerson. “In the context of climate change, we really do have people who are interpreting information very much through the lens of the values that they bring to the table.”

Professor Kerr adds that a big problem has been the mistakes in the way the problem of climate change has been communicated.

“I think we’ve made a terrible mistake in the past with climate change communication. The message is all about fear, and it makes people incredibly powerless,” says Kerr. “In the long term it’s an issue of culture. We can’t create regulations that last for thousands of years.”

So what are some of the lessons for researchers seeking to influence policymakers more effectively? Professor Hussey highlights the need for researchers to understand political narratives.

“It’s the narrative that is formed around a policy problem that will either bring people with you, or leave them behind,” says Hussey. “Last year the narrative was about Australia being an exciting country and innovation was the future… From the academy, we need to understand narratives, because it will either make or break our capacity to interject in the policy-making process.”

Professor Segerson explains how economics can be useful for researchers seeking to frame public policy debates.

“What economics has to offer is a more integrated approach or view of the policy-making process as a whole… When we think about social wellbeing, social welfare for a society, it includes both the people who work in the coal industry as well as the people who are likely to suffer the consequences of climate change. Economics is about identifying the trade-offs that are involved, and looking for ways to minimise those trade-offs.”

Meanwhile Professor Kerr describes her experience in New Zealand using multi-stakeholder dialogues to help researchers and policymakers communicate with each other more effectively.

“What we try to do is spot issues which would really benefit from some really deep discussion among scientists of different disciplines, industry, NGOs, and government departments, where we think that potentially if they could just talk to each other, they would actually find that they can find solutions that they hadn’t thought of,” says Kerr. “It’s about relationships between specific named individuals and you can laugh with each other, and you learn all sorts of things between people who become human.”

The three experts also break down the myth that good policy will always suffer from the whims of politics. While it’s true that politics will often determine policy outcomes, it’s also the case that policy ideas can shape politics.

“There is a very powerful opportunity for the public service… and those around it that endeavour to influence it to be able to put forward policy ideas that might go forward under the radar,” says Professor Hussey.

“Politicians get their ideas from somewhere”, says Professor Kerr. “Every politician is slave to some defunct economist. The idea is probably from something they read a long time ago… What you really want is for the politician to come out with your idea as their idea, and ideally they even forget it was your idea, and they feel totally attached to it. And if you’re involved in those conversations, those long-term continuous conversations, at some point you hear it coming back again, if it was a good idea.”

Karen Hussey, Kathleen Segerson, and Suzi Kerr were in conversation with Policy Forum’s Martyn Pearce. All three experts recently took part in a discussion at a Policy Forum event at Crawford School of Public Policy, titled ‘Bridging science, economics and policy silos’. They have also all written articles for Policy Forum – see Suzi Kerr’s piece here, Kathleen Segerson’s piece here, and Karen Hussey’s pieces here. You can read more about the ‘dialogues’ Suzi Kerr discusses here:

You can catch up with our Policy Forum podcast series via iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please give us a review on iTunes and help us get the word out.

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