“The Science” and “The Politics”

Janet Bowstead, one of our #DataImpactFellows, shares her thoughts on how the often-made distinction between “the science” and “the politics” is not as simple as it might appear and how decisions of scale are relevant to both.


In some ways we might feel that, whilst we are currently in a terrible situation, it is one in which there is a higher profile for experts to have a voice in decision-making: an opportunity for research to have an “impact”.  We are in a situation where scientists are presenting data alongside the politicians who can use those data to inform – or even drive – policy decisions.

But I would argue that it is often a very reductive idea of what counts as science; and a strange concept of science with an uncontested definite article.  I can’t be the only person grinding my teeth at the oft-repeated notion of “following the science” as if it were a purer and simpler process than “following the politics”.

However much anyone tries to parcel off “the science” from “the politics”, they will remain intertwined – and far from being either pure or simple.

If we are thinking about the “impact” of research, then we are often trying to make explicit a process of connecting science to politics.  But such transparency is likely to reveal the complex interconnections, rather than a linear cause and effect, and to shine a light on the process of contestation and collaboration which generates scientific knowledge rather than a box of facts.

In terms of generating and presenting research data to contribute to decision-making in politics, policy and practice, it is often a maze of connections and blind alleys that will be revealed.  In the current context, I have been also struck by an under-appreciation of the influence of geographical scale both on what the science “shows” and what the politics “decide”.

Whilst there may be clear data about individuals – such as whether someone has a positive Covid-19 test, or is awarded a specific school mark – as soon as these data are presented as a rate or a percentage then a decision has been made about the denominator.  So the data are used by the science; and the results are presented to inform or influence the politics.

But it isn’t just the “politics” stage that requires a decision – and that could, therefore, envisage a different decision – it is also the “science” stage.  The “science” of – say – a hospitalisation rate would result in a very different range of figures, and a very different graph, if the rates are presented for the hundreds of Local Authorities in the UK, rather than the twelve regions and nations.

Geography matters.

Take the recent issue of grading school results in the UK.  It may well be appropriate to moderate or standardise teacher assessments to be more closely aligned with what the grades would have been if pupils had taken exams.  It may not be unreasonable to use evidence, and modelling or algorithms, to devise a formula that can be applied.  This would be a typical process of research and data being used to impact policy and practice.

But that moderation could have been done at many different scales – the UK level, in the four nations, regionally – or at the scale of local government.  It’s a question of scale that has to be decided – and this is where the science connects to the politics – because that decision has consequences.

Applying the moderation at the most local scale – individual schools – has belatedly been recognised as palpably unfair to individuals; and has been scrapped.

The scale was too local.

In a separate example, the national “test and trace system” to identify and tackle Covid-19 infections was criticised as under-used and ineffectual.  Belatedly, again, it has been recognised as needing to be changed; and a more tailored, localised approach is being implemented.

The scale wasn’t local enough.

The cost in money and people’s lives from getting the scale wrong can be massive.

When we think about how research and the scientific knowledge it generates can have an impact in the world of policy and practice, it isn’t just a case of following “the science”, or somehow ditching the science and following “the politics”.  It is essential to engage with the contingency in both science and politics, and to face up to how issues such as geography – scale – affect both the evidence and the policy implementation.

Beyond rhetoric such as “postcode lottery” or “world-beating”, it is vital that those in power make decisions and provide responses at the right scale: recognising what must be national or even international – what local – and understand the consequences for getting this right or wrong.

About the author

Janet Bowstead is one of our #DataImpactFellows for 2019. Janet is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Royal Holloway, University of London. She is a feminist academic with a professional background in frontline, policy and coordination work on violence against women.  Her research is interdisciplinary in nature, across geography, social policy and sociology; integrating quantitative, spatial, qualitative and creative methods.  She has research articles in journals in geography and wider social sciences and social policy.  Janet is currently a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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