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The Role of Science in Australia Public Policy Debate

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Background Information

There has been ensuing debate on the role of scientific research in the development and implementation of public service policies in Australia for quite some time now (Fenna 2004). Australia, like any other country in the world, continues to experience complex challenges that call for significant contribution by science in a bid to counter the challenges. With the help of science, the process of policy-making can ensure that policies are efficient and effective in meeting the objectives they were set to achieve in the first place.

Despite all this assertions about the vital role that scientific research can play in policy making ad implementation, the challenges faced by these scientific researches should also not be overlooked (Dill & Beerkens 2010). This is very important, since science has to facilitate policy-making, the bottlenecks associated with scientific research have to be mitigated as well to warrant better results.

Far and wide, it is conventional that vigorous evidence is required in the development of policies. There need to be a methodical evaluation of the available information. This is policy development’s best practice. A good policy should have two significant characteristics;

(1) it should be based on rigorous evidence;

(2) it should have one of the best delivery options.

One of the underlying limitations to the contribution of scientific research in public policy is lack of the realization of what science can do in policy making and delivery. Therefore, evidence based policies should be given greater appreciation by all the stakeholders.

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In Australia, there are many research agencies that are funded by the government as well as those that are independent of such funding. These institutions include Cooperative Research Centers (CRCs), universities and Publicly Funded Agencies (PFRAs) and Medical Research Institutes (MRIs). Perhaps another crucial undertaking by the policy developers is to try and motivate individual scientists from various institutions to avail their researches to the process of policy development to ensure that adequate research is integrated to public policies (Madison& Denniss 2000).

Contemporary public policy development calls for the application of scientific research especially if science is allowed to do its part without interference from politics and politicians (Palmer & Short 2000). Since public policies are in many a time initiated by the topmost institutions and individuals (governments), there is a lot of politics involved. These factors make scientists shy away from public policies since they are uncomfortable and theirs is not to engage in politics but in scientific research. No one can agree more to this than a pure scientist. His or her work is just to engage in research without any consideration of its usage or utility. This disconnects them from the policy-makers. On the other hand, Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives kind of scientist tries to engross in decision-making by intensifying the existing choices, as well as offering clarification to the policy makers. In whichever the case, scientific evidence from both this two distinct scientist as far are involvement in public policy is concerned is invaluable to the process of policy making.

Other crucial aspect of public policy and scientific research are the issue of risks. In almost all policy fields, the issue of risks is very essential, and means of dealing with these risks should be sought right away from inception to delivery of public policies. As a result, risk management should be central to any public policy whether in Australia or any other country. Interestingly, risk construction and perception among the laymen and the experts is dissimilar. In some cases, the magnitude of risks in public policy is overestimated and in others, underestimated. Maybe a good example to explain this is by the illustration of the two kinds of securities, i.e. securities and strategic studies. The first type of security is reality security. This is the actual magnitude of risk which can be calculated mathematically. It is based on rationality. The second type of security is feeling security. It is the reality that is based on emotions that arise as a result of the frames from our cultures, as well as stereotypes and prejudices (misjudgments). Just as security, the understanding of risks is mainly based on what people already know or are aware of (Schneier 2003). Consequently, these risks should be assessed with a lot of objectivity so that effective measures to alleviate them are pursued. This will reduce the potential harm that public policies might have on the general public as well as ensue that they are successfully implemented due to the fact that huge public funds are poured into these projects.

The Case of Illicit Drugs

A good illustration of the importance of scientific research in public policy is in the fight against illicit drugs, in Australia. According to a report by the Global Commission Drug Policy in 2011, the initial forty year war on drugs has been unsuccessful in most countries. This plan has had disastrous repercussions both at the individual and community levels. Based on the findings of this report, which were scientific in nature, the commission advised that all nations need to reexamine the policy on illicit drugs afresh.

Following the announcement by the Global Commission Drug Policy, the Australian appointed a group of experts to try and look for a solution to the menace of illicit drugs that continue to take ground all over the country. The group focused on the benefits and likely costs of a change in the then illicit drugs policy in Australia. In the sitting that included professionals in the field of public health and drug policy among others, a discussion arose that saw the release of a report that would receive wide media coverage and intensified public debate. The report gave great emphasis to the importance, applied with regard to previous success stories in countries such as the Netherlands, Portugal Switzerland in order to learn on what needs to be done (Ritter et al. 2011).

The report was able to acknowledge the vitality of scientific research in minimizing the damages associated with the use of illicit drugs. The senate of Australia has also been able to draft a motion in support of a scientific-based approach to dealing with the issue of illicit drugs. Some of the outstanding evidence based studies in illicit drugs have been undertaken by a number of scientific bodies in Australia. One of those bodies is National Health and Medical Research Council that has been able to publish a series of evidence-based reports on drug use. In the year 2001, it released a report that sought to discover some of the risk as well as protective factors among the youths who engage in drug abuse. Another body that is even concerned mor about illicit drugs in Australia is the National Drug and Alcoholic Research Center. In the year 2003, the organization managed to release a report under the Australian Treatment Outcome which it coordinated. This was a pioneering large scale longitudinal research in Australia that concentrated on heroin dependence treatment outcomes. The study was a three months observation of the aftermaths of the treatment of individuals suffering from heroin dependence.

Resultantly, it is clear that scientific research is needed in the formulation and delivery of policies touching on drug abuse. Whether it is at the point of development, implementation, risk management or evaluation of public policies, scientific research is an indispensable (Woll 1974).

Incorporation of Science into Public Policy in Australia

The government of Australia has for a long time envisaged to the inclusion of science in public policy to certify the success of its public policies. Nonetheless, the infrastructure that has been put in place as so far not produced the best results (Australian Public Service 2004). This has necessitated the government in conjunction with the private sector to devise ways of improving the mechanisms that will oversee the insertion of scientific research and innovative approaches in addressing various national challenges. This goes in line with the endeavors of the Commonwealth to capitalize on research that might be the solution to the number of challenges faced by countries all over the world. Australia has already received a grant of $8.9 billion from the Commonwealth to facilitative this mission. The Australian government seeks to see that scientific community and the policy makers are able to cooperate in order to transmit scientific knowledge into the development of public policies. One particular agency that is responsible for giving advice to the Australian government on research issues is the Australian Research Council. It carries a period evaluation of the state of scientific research in Australia and reports to the government for action.

From the various studies that have been conducted, there needs to be a systematic approach that should make certain that science is applied development and evaluation. The Australian Public Service with the facilitation of the APS200 project has managed to come up with a number of recommendations for the inclusion of scientific research in public policy. Lessons from past mistakes have enabled a number of future-looking recommendations that are purposed to sustain future efforts. The first recommendation is for the various departments to carry out a review of frameworks that touch on policy development and each one of them to come up with strategies that will aid in the methodological inclusion of empirical evidence in the public policy developments and evaluation. The second recommendation is for the department that is concerned with industry, scientific research and innovations (DIISRTE) to expedite ongoing partnerships that are intended to incorporate scientific research in public policies.

The efforts to enable a scientific role in public policy has been met with an array of challenges that need to been controlled. The first challenge is lateness of availing the scientific research for use by policy developers. Therefore, timeliness is critical so as to curb some of the problems related to aptness or appropriateness of scientific evidence (Althaus Bridgman & Davis 2007). The second class of challenges stems from the cultural rigidity of both scientists and policy makers. Scientists should be knowledgeable on policy making whereas the policy makers should have an understanding of the scientific resources. Collaboration becomes an easy exercise, as a result. Timeframes are instrumental as well as challenging to policy development. This has a severe effect on the application of science in policy development if the precise guidance is not sought within the correct timeframe. The fourth challenge comes with accessibility. Facilitation of availability and utilization of scientific research particularly by governments is a key factor to the incorporation of the data in policy development, implementation and evaluation.

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The Cycle of Integration: Science and Public Policy

There are five phases in which scientific research and Public policy can be engaged (Australian Public Service 2004).

The first one is anticipation. At this stage, matters that might call for policy response are pointed put. The agenda of a policy at this stage is characterized by a lot of pressure form groups that have vested interest, the media or the civil rights agitators. Scientific evidence is crucial at this stage to ensure that the activists do not mislead the general public as far as risks are concerned, therefore, posing challenges with response.

The second phase is known as the formulation stage that involves the collection of information, analysis of the policy and the determination of the appropriate tools to oversee the implementation of the policy. This stage requires a competitive analysis of empirical evidence so as to manage intricacies in the most effective manners. Scientists can advise the policy makers at this stage of formulation.

The third stage consultation. The existing policy options are deliberated upon with the stakeholders in or out of the country. This offers a great opportunity to pursue the advice of scientists as well as polish out the policy. Adoption is the second last phase that entails coordination, and implementation of the policy. The issue of funds and administrative protocols is obeyed. Decision-making becomes a crucial factor in this stage that largely involves the governments. Cabinets or concerned ministers are required to make a decision regarding these policies. Activities such as campaigns aimed at educating the general public, transfer to institutions as well as designing the public policy programs and management groups are some of the characteristics of this phase. At this stage, decision makers will require that the policy developers elucidate the scientific foundations of the drafted policies. The administration may call to appraise the policy proposals on its group of scientific experts. This is helpful in designing the options for enactment. Evaluation is the last stage of the process of public policy that takes place during the entire period of implementation. It is a representation of the closure of the policy initiatives. The knowledge gathered from the reviews of the public policies is streamed right back into the cycle at the first and second phase. Creation of a scientific base is crucial in gauging policy reconciliation processes (Australian Public Service 2004).

Scientists and Decision Making: The Four Idealized Roles

It is crucial to understand that scientists have an option on how they want to contribute to policy processes. However, what needs to be avoidded is using science as a political tool that serves a few people with selfish interests. This will mitigate the overshadowing of science and allow it to take its rightful role in public policy. There are four roles that scientists can play in policy (Pielke 2007). They can be categorized under: (i) pure scientist; (ii) issue advocate; (iii) science arbiter; and honest broker of policy alternative. The pure scientists only focus on carrying out research that will be placed in a reservoir. They do not have any relationship with policy makers. However, the research they undertake can be obtained from the reservoirs by the policy makers and be utilized in decision making. Issue advocates give attention to the effect of their research in promoting the interests of specific groups. Their research is meant to back various policies and politics. They accept the conception that science must have an active role in decision making. This leads to a number of challenges that might sometimes undermine the response to the policy process by the general public since issue advocates are perceived to be partisan. Issues arbiter kind of scientists does not want to be overtly associated with politics and policy just as pure scientists. Nonetheless, they are aware of the role of science in answering some of the crucial questions raised by decision makers. They adjudicate on these questions as scientist panels and give answers back to policy makers. They are able to focus on positive and avoid normative questions thus being able to stay off politics (Pielke 2007). The honest broker of policy alternatives kind of scientists is able to engage in decision making process through offering clarification as well as expanding the range of alternatives for decision makers. They pursue an unequivocal integration of science in policy by availing alternatives to the way forward. The major difference with issue advocate is that whereas honest broker of policy alternatives seeks to expand the scope of choices, the issue advocate seeks to limit this scope. Pielke (2007) denotes that even though scientists have a choice on what role to play in public policy and politics, they should take into consideration the consequences of their actions.

The Risk Phenomenon

The term risk though highly contested simply refers to the likelihood of an event occurring accompanied with the degree of gains or losses that it will necessitate (Boterill & Mazur 2004). A number of public policies if not all of them have their own risks. For instance, the forty year war on drugs by the United Nations had its risk right from its inception. True to that, the plan failed in many countries. It is very important for policy developers to instigate measures geared towards the management of the risks associated with various policies so as to safeguard the success of these policies (Colebatch, 2009). A lot of funds are invested in public policies. Ensuring that the policies accomplish what they are set to realize will an of great benefit especially to the general public due to the fact that it is public funds that are used to sail these programs through. This is where scientific research comes into play.

The measurement of risks entails probability as well as quantification. More often, people generalize the probability of desirable and undesirable outcomes. This leads to misconceptions that affect the results of public policies (Willson 1987). One of the major challenges in understanding the probability of risks is that one has to strike a balance between future inferences and past events. Presently, there exists a larger volume of scientific research on people’s perceptions of risks and how they try to manage these risks. What dictate the selective attention given to different risks are the moral, cultural and social systems of those people involved. Therefore, these predispositions lead to minimization or exaggeration of the present and future risks. Equipped with this knowledge from empirical research, stakeholders in public policies can be able to deal with the challenge of risks (Wolfle 1959).

The scientists and lay persons have a difference in the way they perceive risks associated with various policies (Wolfle 1959). The laymen tend to focus on possibility rather than probability (which interests professionals). In most cases, there is a “what if” aspect in their perception of risks. This occurs even after professionals have downplayed chances of a particular event occurring. The use of this evidence (arising from scientific research) should add value to the evaluation of risks relating to public policy and these should be done systematically.

Another point of consideration is on the scientists’ ability to offer answers that are congruent but, not those that keep on shifting from one opposite to the other. This will instill public confidence and make the adoption of change to be easier. For instance, the adoption of innovation among many Australians is not an easy task. The perception of the general public on the risks associated with new technologies (that are incorporated in many public policies) is crucial in determining the ease or difficulty of the adoption process. Policy developers should find an effective and favorable way of communicating with the public on the various environmental, health and technological risks that come with public policy. There exists substantial research in Australia on the issue of risk perception that can be utilized by the policy developers.

Conclusion

From the evidence that has been provided, it becomes apparent that scientific research should be an integral part of the processes involved in policy making. The five phases of policy development need integration of scientific research so that there is a nice transition from one stage to the other thus fostering the like hood of success in public success since if there comes a hiccup on the way, the research backed policy can be able to resume back at the drawing table and device measure to that will see the programs sail through successfully.

The process of development, implementation and evaluation public policies, are vulnerable to a series of challenges that can be dealt with by use of empirical research. People’s reactions to public policies are instrumental in the success or failure of a public policy. In that line, scientists should choose carefully on what role to play in policy and politics since the consequences of their involvement can either have a positive or negative effect on science, policy or politics. There exists a quite a number of partisan groups when it boils down to public policies whether at the first stage of anticipation or the last stage of evaluation. Risk perception is one of the most important issue that public policy that is affected by moral, social and cultural values. Consequently, scientific research comes in as an objective and nonpartisan entity that help public policy development, implementation and evaluation to realize its goals and manage to curb the various social problems. 

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