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The Hewlett Foundation Blog

Friday Note: Click! 

March 21, 2014 — By Ruth Levine

We’ve been doing a little spring cleaning around here, hauling some old descriptions of our work to the curb, hanging some new pictures and shining up descriptions of what we do and how we do it. Meaning: we’ve fixed up the web pages for the Global Development and Population Program. Take a look when you get a few minutes, and remember to use the left hand navigation to click through to expanded descriptions of each component. Over time we’ll add some strategy and evaluation documents to make it a richer resource for the fields in which we work.

We’re hopeful that the website is self-explanatory and we don’t need to fill up a lot of blog space repeating ourselves. But one part merits a few additional words.

A few people have asked why we (okay, I) named one of our program sub-components “Evidence-informed Policymaking.” I know, it’s awkward. More appealing, more natural would be the common phrase “Evidence-based policymaking.” But, like a few others, such as the UK Department for International Development, we’re sticking with the clumsy name, and I’ll tell you why.

“Evidence-based policymaking” is a phrase borrowed from “evidence-based medicine,” an approach to making decisions about patient care that takes advantage of the best available scientific evidence, incorporating an assessment of the quality of the underlying study designs from which that evidence was gleaned. Although increasingly accepted within the medical field, it’s still a challenge to trump physician judgment and expert views—“eminence-based medicine”—with the body of scientific findings about what treatments are effective.

The jump from “evidence-based medicine” to “evidence-based (social) policymaking” is not a straightforward one. It’s the jump into politics, and the jump from hard science to difficult science.

We’d probably all happily go to a doctor who depends only on the best biomedical science, and who ignores political interests and values—at least values beyond respect for basic human rights. But we’d be unhappy with a policymaker who mechanistically focuses only on what can be studied in grand experiments, or who sets priorities and pursued programs through some sort of numbers-driven optimization calculus. Not only would we be unhappy, but that person would likely be thrown out of office in short order. Instead, we’d want a policymaker who shares our values and goals, understands the political chess game, and then—perhaps only then—turns to the always imperfect findings from social science research to help figure out the best choices among politically feasible options. At that point, we’d want the policymaker and those influencing her or him to grasp the best available knowledge, and to know the difference between a shoddy study and a good one. In short, we’d want the policies to be informed by good evidence, not based on it.

In addition to being a shade closer to what we expect of the real world, the advantage of having this slightly out-of-tune moniker is that it catches people’s attention. They expect you to say “evidence-based” and when you say “evidence-informed,” it starts a conversation—often quite an interesting one. Try it and see.