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Ignoring evidence affects UK’s ability to respond to major challenges

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Research conducted by the University of Cambridge reveals a concerning trend hindering the UK’s ability to address pressing issues such as public health and climate change. The study1 suggests that policymakers often disregard existing evidence when formulating policies, impeding progress in these critical areas.

According to the research findings, this “evidence-neglect” arises from the incentive structures that reward politicians for setting ambitious policy objectives while simultaneously discouraging the implementation of necessary measures to achieve them. Furthermore, conflicting political ideologies and interests further contribute to this challenge, impeding the adoption of effective policies.

Overcoming the flaw

The author proposes two key measures. Firstly, involving citizens more actively in the policy-making process would ensure that their interests take precedence. Secondly, enhancing the accountability of politicians through the implementation of legally binding frameworks for all stages of policy-making would promote responsible decision-making.

Notably, successive UK governments have pledged to tackle major societal issues by setting ambitious targets. These objectives encompass significant milestones such as reducing childhood obesity by 50% before 2030, eradicating smoking by 2030, narrowing the gap in healthy life expectancy by 2030, and achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“None of these ambitions is on course,” the author explains. “Of course, scientific evidence is just one of many sources of information for policymakers to consider, but neglecting evidence is a sure-fire route to unsuccessful policymaking.”

Poor progress

Forecasts paint a worrisome picture, suggesting that the goal of reducing childhood obesity by 50% by 2030 may fall short, with the likelihood of a doubling rather than a halving of cases during that period. Similarly, the eradication of smoking, initially targeted for 2030, appears to face a delayed realization, now projected to extend beyond 2050.

Furthermore, while the gap in healthy life expectancy between regions is predicted to narrow by 2030, subsequent estimations indicate a potential increase of five years by 2035. These trends suggest substantial challenges in meeting these ambitious objectives.

Realizing each of these aspirations necessitates sustained alterations in various sets of behaviors encompassing individuals across different socio-economic groups. These encompass dietary choices, consumption patterns, tobacco use, and transportation habits.

Lack of evidence

“There are many possible reasons why these policy ambitions are so far off-track, but chief among them is the neglect of evidence, particularly around achieving sustained changes in behavior across populations,” the author continues.

“Put simply, these failures are baked-in, given the policies designed to achieve these ambitions are based on interventions that cannot achieve the change required.”

Politicians are often incentivized to pursue ambitious goals, especially if they’re part of election pledges or are designed to achieve positive publicity. Against this, they can also discourage the kind of policies designed to achieve those goals.

“Fear of electoral damage plays a role here,” the author explains. “Take taxes on tobacco, alcohol, junk food and carbon emissions: these are among the most effective interventions for improving health and the climate, but they are unpopular with the public and so politicians are unwilling to adopt them.”

Resistance to progress

The implementation of such policies may encounter not only public resistance but also opposition rooted in political interests and ideologies. One such ideology is neoliberalism, which advocates for limited government involvement in the economy and public policy, placing greater emphasis on individual responsibility for achieving well-being, wealth, and happiness. Within this framework, government interventions are often portrayed as intrusive “Nanny Statism.”

Moreover, certain industries have a vested interest in promoting personal responsibility, as it dissuades politicians from adopting effective policies that could potentially impede their interests. Industries that stand to be affected by measures aimed at reducing the consumption of fossil fuels, tobacco, alcohol, meat, and unhealthy food often cast doubt on the efficacy of such policies. They employ various lobbying tactics to sway governmental decision-makers, presenting arguments that support the maintenance of the status quo and align with their business objectives.

“There are no quick or single fixes to overcoming these problems, but there are two changes which could help: engaging citizens more in priority setting and policy design, and increasing the accountability of politicians through introducing legally-binding systems for reporting progress on policy ambitions,” the author adds.

Next steps

Policymakers have a range of options at their disposal when it comes to engaging citizens. These options include surveys, focus groups, town hall meetings, citizen assemblies, and collaboration with civil society organizations. By adopting such an approach, policymakers can potentially mitigate the political repercussions of unpopular policies.

This is achieved by exposing citizens to evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness of these policies. Numerous studies have consistently shown that such exposure tends to increase support for these policies. In fact, policies crafted with citizen engagement tend to garner more public backing, as they are perceived to be fairer and more likely to achieve their intended goals.

To address the issue of neglecting evidence, which is crucial for policy success, introducing legally binding systems for reporting policies and monitoring progress towards policy ambitions could prove highly impactful. By implementing such systems, policymakers can ensure that if progress veers off track, appropriate measures are taken to rectify the situation.

An illustrative example of this can be found in the recent Leveling Up strategy paper by the UK government. This paper outlined plans to establish a statutory obligation for the government to provide annual reports on progress towards accomplishing the Leveling Up missions. In conjunction with these plans, the government also released a set of metrics to gauge progress and evaluate the efficacy of the strategy.

“Although these requirements are by no means perfect, the legislation as drafted will at least allow parliament significantly more scrutiny of progress towards a government ambition than is often the case,” the author concludes. “Laudable policy ambitions to improve a nation’s health and protect life on the planet will remain unfulfilled ambitions unless and until evidence is given a more central role in the policy-making process.”

Article source: Ignoring Evidence Affects UK’s Ability To Respond To Major Challenges.

Header image source: Created by Bruce Boyes with Perchance AI Photo Generator.


  1. Marteau, T. M. (2023). Evidence-neglect: addressing a barrier to UK health and climate policy ambitions. Science and Public Policy, scad021.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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