The role of science in policy making

  • I.D. Dyer

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis aims to consider the role played by science in policy making. Firstly, two decision models are considered, synoptic rationality which depends heavily on formal information and comprehensive planning, and disjointed incrementalism, under which decisions are made in a fragmented and remedial manner via the interaction of interested partisans and with little necessity for formal information. Secondly, different descriptions of scientific activity are discussed and a broadly Kuhnian view of science is supported, with what is regarded as a `fact' being heavily influenced by social factors. It is suggested that scientific controversies are more likely to occur in policy related science but for reasons that are intrinsic to science rather than due to some correctable aberration. A number of case studies, including two `in-depth' studies into maternal deprivation and the relationship between hyperactivity and food additives, support this contention and also show that whilst scientific findings can raise issues they cannot aid in the resolution of these as the synoptic model suggests that they should. Instead information supports and legitimates value based policy views, with actual policy decisions arrived at via negotiation and aiming at a balancing of partisan pressures, as suggested by the incremental model. Not only does information not aid the resolution of policy disputes, it cannot do so. When policy is disputed, scientific findings are also likely to be disputed and further research merely attracts more highly destructive criticism. This is termed the over critical model. When policy is decided then there is reduced impetus to critically test scientific ideas; this is termed the under critical model. Both of these situations act to the detriment of science. The main conclusion drawn is that the belief that science is essential to decision making is misleading and may serve to mask rather than illuminate areas of dispute.
    Date of Award1986
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorDavid Collingridge (Supervisor)


    • science
    • policy making

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