A new dimension to “science policy.”

Whenever the subject of science policy comes up, people are quick to tell you that there are two aspects to the subject.

First up is policy for science. This generally refers to subjects such as federal budget outlays for science, and the relative priorities and dollar amounts for different fields…the allocation for the life sciences versus particle physics, say. It speaks to preferences for in-house research in federal agencies versus research grants to universities. It covers the use of Institutional Review Boards and other instrumentalities for ensuring that human rights are protected in experiments. There’s a great deal more, but you get the idea.

Then there’s science for policy. This is the use of science in policy formulation. This usually is taken to cover topics such as the use of data on greenhouse gas emissions to inform climate-change policy, the use of research linking smoking to cancer to develop regulation for the tobacco industry, and more.

Today’s Washington Post Outlook section surfaced a third dimension to this general subject area. Dylan Matthews, a reporter for the Post’s Wonkblog, wrote an interesting article entitled Taking the guesswork out of policy. The subtitle tells the whole story: The Post’s Dylan Matthews says there’s a way for Congress to make better laws: Test them first.

Here’s an excerpt or two. Mr. Matthews starts this way: I’m a policy reporter. My job is to explain to my readers whether smaller class sizes help students learn, whether tax cuts boost economic growth and whether housing programs help families escape poverty.

In a perfect world, what I do would be a kind of science reporting. Just as my colleagues at the health desk often explain which medicines are effective and which are a bust, I’d ideally be able to describe what sociologists, economists and political scientists have discovered about which policies work.

With a few exceptions, however, I can’t really do that — at least not with the precision my health colleagues often can. More important, neither can policymakers in Congress and in many regulatory agencies. The Food and Drug Administration has more information available in deciding whether to approve a treatment that a few thousand people will receive than Congress does in considering a bill that will affect every American.

He then goes on to cite a few cases where researchers actually did run pilot tests on policies and collect data to help guide a permanent decision. Some are domestic, but where Mr. Matthews sees really interesting results is in the international development arena: With funding from individuals and foundations, but for the most part not governments, they [development-policy researchers] have learned, for instance, that spreading information about the benefits of education keeps students in class; remedial tutoring doesn’t. Giving away bed nets reduces malaria infections; charging even a small amount for them is much less effective.

The confidence with which development researchers can make these judgments is in stark contrast to the Talmudic reading of a handful of studies that characterizes debate about social policy in the United States.

Mr. Matthews points out that the analytical capability available to Congress is limited to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and the Congressional Research Service (CRS), but the tools, the remit, and the resources available to these offices are limited.

He closes this way: Most people would never dream of taking a pill that lacks FDA approval — that hasn’t made it through a randomized trial with a solid record. We shouldn’t have to settle for less from federal policy. With a congressional policy-evaluation office, we wouldn’t have to.

What a splendid notion! The concept is easy to grasp and immediately attractive and compelling. Please take a moment to read the full article.

At the same time, it’s also easy to see where objections will arise. This idea will take a great deal more socialization and debate before it’s accepted and put into wider practice.

All the more reason to start talking about it now.

This looks to be another of those crucial conversations we were discussing Saturday.

More on this intriguing idea in the next post.

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