Tony Mills, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recently published The Role of Judgment and Deliberation in Science-Based Policy, a fantastic working paper in which he identifies some of the often misunderstood or overlooked factors that determine the outcome of public policy debates.  

“Public policy in a modern representative democracy such as ours is inevitably responsive to a host of pressures: popular opinion, constituent demands, practical constraints, local custom, institutional dynamics, interest-group activity, party loyalty, political ideology, and value disagreements of all sorts,” he writes.

These factors are most frequently invisible to the millions of American consumers subject to the rules and regulations handed down by countless state and federal agencies and enforced through private litigation.  This is particularly true of regulations in which scientific evidence forms the cornerstone of the decision-making process.

You might think that fact-based scientific evidence could help cut through the clutter of the “pressures” Mills described.  “By basing public policy on scientific evidence, in other words, we may minimize our political disagreements and thus arrive at optimal solutions to our shared problems. When successful, science offers a kind of repository of neutral evidence, insulated from the uncertainties, ignorance, and value disputes that beset our politics. Accordingly, ‘following the science’ allows us to constrain, if not eliminate, the role of judgment—and thus of deliberation—in political decision-making. Judgment and deliberation thus come to be seen as unnecessary, at best. At worst, they are treated as obstacles to the implementation of sound policy.”

As Ernest Hemingway wrote: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Scientific research can serve as a beacon to lead policymakers to the best possible public policy decisions. However, the best decisions combine fact-based evidence with real world risk-assessment and risk management techniques that help policymakers develop policies that balance the risks of access or exposure to drugs, chemicals, and compounds in a way that mitigates potential damage and maximizes public health and socio-economic value.  

As Mills so aptly points out “deciding that something is the case differs from deciding to do something.  Science is indispensable for public policy. But scientific evidence, no matter how robust, can never replace, only inform, judgment and deliberation. And this is, in part, because scientific expertise itself depends on such judgment and deliberation.  It follows that using scientific knowledge for practical purposes is never a matter of inputting neutral, ready-made evidence, but rather of relying on expert judgment.”

I hope Mill’s work and valuable message is put to good use by scientists, judges, juries, and policymakers across the country and around the world.