Research the Election – How Do MPs make Decisions on Policy?
You are more than likely aware of the impending UK General Election, when, on May 7th 2015, we will decide who will represent us in the House of Commons and who will ultimately govern the UK. Our MPs vote and legislate on all kinds of issues, but how do they come to their decisions? Does evidence overrule morality, public opinion and personal beliefs? If so, how reliable and useful is this evidence? To look into this, Sense About Science have commissioned a survey, canvassing information from 104 Labour and Conservative MPs who served from 2010-2015 on what influences their choices when setting social policy.
The survey, conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the scientific advocacy group Sense About Science, yielded some surprising results (pdf) which are summarised nicely in an article on The Conversation. When asked:
Which two or three, if any, of the following should politicians pay most attention to when deciding what should be done?
The top answer, with 50% of MPs selecting it, was “Evidence from Experts (e.g. academics or think tanks)”. This result seems promising, as evidence comes out above “My Own Principles” at 34% and “Personal Experiences” at 8%, but the source of this evidence could be questionable. Think tanks tend to be far from impartial, and academics, while experts, can also be swayed by their own personal beliefs. Would we be as comfortable with 50% of MPs selecting “Evidence from Lobbyists” as their top influence on decision making? Further influence comes from “Views of Practitioners (e.g. teachers, police etc)”, which was selected by 40% of the MPs. This is again somewhat positive but a group liable to bias based on individual personal experiences rather than evidence.
Any scientist will tell you that the most reliable evidence comes from randomised controlled trials (RCTs), where participants in the trials are unaware of the treatments they have been allocated to avoid bias such as the placebo effect. This methodology means that some trial participants receive no treatment (the control group), and 35% of the MPs questioned found this to be morally unfair to the control group, even though such controls are necessary to determine the efficacy of the treatment being trialled. As such, only 23% of MPs stated that findings from RCTs are important in influencing their decision making, while 31% would take into account findings from trials without controls. These are disappointingly low figures, and calls are being made in the media to promote the importance of RCTs to our MPs, which still rank lower than MPs’ own principles. A prime example of morals outranking evidence would be the controversy over drug classification and legalisation prompted by then Government Advisor Prof David Nutt, who was unceremoniously dismissed for publicly detailing research that went against government policy.
So what can you do to ensure your MPs are examining the evidence when making policy decisions? The second most important influence was “Views of Constituents”, selected by 45% of the MPs, and so, after the election of course, you can contact your MP to impress on them the importance of research, evidence and RCTs. Indeed, a greater all-round appreciation of science by our politicians would also be welcomed; a 2010 survey by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) found that only 105 of MPs reported a background or even an interest in science. At Research the Headlines, we will also continue to scrutinise scientific reporting, although with none of the MPs reporting journalists as being an influence on their decision making processes, our own influence on MPs will have to come indirectly through you, the general public!