Bridging the Gap Between Evidence and Policy

The 21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum aims to bridge the gap between evidence and policy, brokering relationships and the exchange of knowledge between different audiences: primarily geographers and policy-makers. How can organisations such as the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), other professional and learned societies, bodies and individuals seeking to inform policy with the best available evidence do so most effectively? A new book by Susan Owens, Professor of Environment and Policy in the Department of Geography at Cambridge University, provides some pointers. Last night, the RGS-IBG Policy Team attended the launch of Professor Owens’ book, organised by the Institution of Environmental Sciences and chaired by Professor Sir John Lawton. Reflecting on 41 years of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, until it was disbanded by the Coalition Government in 2011, Professor Owens’ talk at the launch provided a fascinating insight into what made this body so influential for so long.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) was created in 1970 under Harold Wison’s Labour Government, part of an institutional response to a growing concern about the environment on the part of policy-makers and members of the public. The first Chair of the RCEP was Sir Eric (later Lord) Ashby and it was attended by Anthony Crossland, who later became Secretary of State for the Environment, when the Department of the Environment was created as a ‘super ministry’ in 1970. This Department had responsibility for housing and planning, local government, public buildings, environmental protection and transport. The RCEP, reporting into this ministry, therefore had a wide remit across many different policy areas. In the 41 years of its existence the RCEP produced more than 30 reports, during what Susan Owens described as a ‘transformative period for environmental policy’.

Studying the RCEP and its relationship with Government can tell us something about the relations between science and policy, the science – policy interactions, that we have in the UK as a democratic society, Professor Owens suggested. She set out four models that could explain the role of the RCEP and similar advisory bodies:

  1. Detached, rational analysts informing Government;
  2. Political symbols used by Government to legitimise decisions, or non-decisions;
  3. Agents of learning doing something gradual and subtle over periods of time to change attitudes and influence;
  4. Performers of ‘boundary work’, transcending disciplines between boundaries in the provision of advice.

Professor Owens argued that the RCEP was at its most influential when it combined brokering and educating functions with ‘skilful boundary work’, transcending the boundaries between disciplines and between science and policy. Professor Owens characterised this as creating ‘serviceable truths’; those which were realistic and useful to decision-makers.

So what factors enabled the RCEP to have such an influence on environmental policy over its lifetime? Professor Owens acknowledged that for all the RCEP’s ‘direct hits’, those reports which had been extremely well-received by policy-makers (such as that on lead in petrol), there had been others that failed to gain traction. The most successful reports had made recommendations that seemed to resonate with the political attitudes of the time, and had been timely. Others had been ‘dormant seeds’ that had germinated many years later due to a process of policy learning in the intervening period.

Overall, the RCEP had authority as an advisory body which helped it to gain influence, in a positively reinforcing cycle. It was perceived as a ‘hard scientific’ body; a committee of experts. It had an enduring reputation for independence from Government, even whilst remaining fiscally dependent on it. It practised this autonomy and independence, often choosing topics for inquiries which were inconvenient for Government. Perhaps most interestingly, Professor Owens described the style of the Commission’s meetings as ‘argumentative but cohesive’. The Commission comprised a range of authorities on different topics, but who would necessarily be ‘lay members’ for particular issues outside of their individual expertise. The frequency of the Commission’s meetings meant it was possible to be argumentative and challenging, but in a spirit of inquiry which led to a genuine bottoming out of the issues in hand, gaining a breadth of perspective and allowing it to write robust reports.

So what changed in 2011? The Commission had survived attacks before, with threats to abolish it from the Thatcher Government, for example, but had always emerged unscathed. However, by 2011 the circumstances of the day were superimposed upon longer terms trends and changes to the nature of environmental policy which spelt the end for the RCEP. Progressive restructuring within Government had led to the formation of Defra, a smaller, weaker ministry with a more restricted remit than the ‘super ministry’ for the environment set up at the beginning of the Commission’s lifespan. The cross-governmental remit of the RCEP was therefore overlooked by policy-makers. Equivalent bodies in other European countries, for example in Sweden, retain this cross-Governmental support by reporting into the equivalent of the UK Cabinet Office. Structures of governance had changed too, with the RCEP now responsible for looking not only to UK policy but to Europe and to international bodies, along with the devolved administrations, which proved challenging. Finally, in the early days of the Commission, reports were focused on cleaning up the externalities of industrial production. In the 21st Century, attention turned to ‘wicked problems’ such as climate change which were much harder to tackle. By 2011, and the Coalition Government’s ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’ and drive to save money in the wake of the financial crisis, the Commission had lost resilience, which left it vulnerable.

One of the rationales for abolishing the Commission, given in a speech by Caroline Spelman MP, then Secretary of State for the Environment, was that Government had adequate access to independent scientific advice and that therefore the RCEP was unnecessary. But has the scientific community adequately filled the gap left behind by the RCEP to provide this information to decision-makers? Professor Owens argued that there was more of a role for the National Academies and learned societies in the UK to play here. Professor Owens suggested that the model followed by the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, with standing committees working on particular issues, would be a good one to adopt, as opposed to small groups of academics coming together for particular issue-based reports and then disbanding.

Knowledge, Policy and Expertise: The UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970 – 2011
Susan Owens. Oxford University Press

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