Does scientific evidence capture the attention of policymakers?

Leire Rincón García

Does scientifically-backed information capture the attention of policymakers? To test this, I conducted a field experiment embedded in a real-life advocacy initiative targeted to members of the European Parliament in April 2018. As described in my Evidence & Policy article, ‘The silver bullet reversed: the impact of empirical evidence on policymaker attention’, results indicate that ideas-based information, rather than empirical information, gathers more attention from policymakers. More precisely, it is the announcement of ideas rather the actual information which manages to capture policymaker interest. Crucially, these findings hold across political groups, policy support and gender.

The results presented in my study have broad implications for the study of evidence-based policymaking (EBPM), experiments with political elites and current policy debates. In terms of EBPM, these findings show that while evidence may be important at later stages of the policy process, it does not seem to have an impact on agenda-setting at the individual level. Preliminary interviews with political elites involved in the experiment suggest that empirical evidence is not as relevant at the agenda-setting stage. When policymakers are considering a policy proposal in principle, other factors – like interest, framing or prior beliefs about a policy – seem to have a larger weight on their attention. However, having scientifically or empirically-backed evidence does become crucial at later stages when policymakers need to defend their policy proposals.

The study also shows the potential of making use of real-life settings and initiatives to embed field experiments targeted at political elites. This is critical in a context of increasing concern about the overwhelming surveying and experimenting directed at political elites. It shows that relying on existing initiatives may serve as a way of accumulating research knowledge without overloading elites with survey requests. From the initiative or organisation’s point of view, this is also of interest, given the learning they can take from the effectiveness of their strategies.

Finally, my study has important implications for current debates on the reform of the welfare state, where many experiments and pilot projects are under way to test new policy proposals like universal basic income. Results raise concerns about the extent to which these findings will have an impact on policymaker attention toward these proposals. While testing new alternatives may serve to inform policymakers in a particular context and raise general awareness of a proposal, it seems that this does not generally have an impact on attention at the micro-level. While this contribution has served to test the importance of empirical evidence at the micro-level, additional work could examine under which conditions attention to evidence may be increased, exploring moderators and mediators in the process.           

Leire Rincón García is a PhD Candidate at the University of Barcelona and IBEI 8Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals). Her thesis revolves around preferences for welfare reform in light of new reforms like universal basic income. Her research interests include political elites, especially how they process information, and how this impacts their attitudes and behaviour and gender.

You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

García, L.R. (2020). The silver bullet reversed: the impact of evidence on policymaker attention. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426420X16017817089543.

Image credit: Photo by Beatriz Pérez Moya on Unsplash

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

The strategic uses of evidence in UK e-cigarettes policy debates

Bridging the research‐policy gap: the importance of effective identity leadership and shared commitment

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