Gazing through the looking glass: the black box of policy

Policy development is usually a mix of several different factors coming together; it is often contextual and temporal. The condition in which policy is created is often a process that is not well understood. Marmot (2004) highlights the bilateral interactions between policy makers and researchers – he goes on to editorialize the question: “Evidence based policy or policy based evidence?”. His example of policy surrounding alcohol control in the UK exasperates the notion that policy usually requires both evidence and desire of policy makers to take action. His suggestion is that there are “two issues: what the science shows and its policy implications” (Marmot, 907). Inherent in this suggestion is that scientists no matter how apolitical they may want to stay they too are actors in the development of policy.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a working group about climate change, and as many of us can attest to the implication of climate change are ever-present. Climate Change is beginning to impact our environment, resulting in changes that we cannot predict. Our health, our work, our social life and mental well-being are all at risk when considering the impacts of Climate Change. The scientific evidence is alarmingly suggesting that we are at a state of emergency (IPCC, 2013; ITF, 2010), so why is no one concerned? Why do the scientists insist on publishing more damming reports but the action (government intervention in the form of policy) required to discuss this devastation remain fragmented and weak. I am not suggesting that there is not some feel good stories – refer to the major shifts to public transport and reduction in fossil fuel in Curitiba, Columbia (UNEP/ILO/IOE/ITUC, 2008) or the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy group working on a publicly owned transition to a low-carbon economy (Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, 2013). Some heavily committed people around the world are screaming at the rest of us, and we can’t seem to muster up the courage to join them. At this point we can look to government for leadership but the need for personal action is also required and to that end to mobilize the kind of change that is being suggested we must all act, at all levels. This is an example where the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly calling for action but the action required is not being taken up by policy makers.


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This lack of action can be seen as somewhat frustrating for many of us, but as Straus & Jones (2004) point out “we now have too many sources of evidence compiled with a variable mix of scientific rigor and opinion, resulting in confusing messages” (987). For every academic publication, there are others that will contradict or interpret the research differently. Getting back to the original focus surrounding policy, I think that it begs the question, how is policy created and how do we make sure that it is created in a way that will maximize the most positive influence for all of us. Future research need to focus on how research can translate into best practice. From a practical response, I also believe that it is time that scientist stop pretending that they are apolitical – and that they start taking more responsibility through action for their findings.


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2013). Group 1: Report 5. Retrieved from

International Transport Workers Federation (2010). Discussion Document: Transport workers and climate change: Towards sustainable, low-carbon mobility.

Marmot, M. (2004). Evidence based policy or policy based evidence?: Willingness to take action influences the view of the evidence – look at alcohol. British Medical Journal, 328, 7445, 906-907.

Straus, S., & Jones, G. (2004). What has evidence based medicine done for us? It has given us a good start, but much remains to be done. British Medical Journal, 329, 7473, 987-988.

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. (2013). About the initiative. Retrieved from:

UNEP/ILO/IOE/ITUC. (2008). Green jobs: Towards decent work in a sustainable, low-carbon world.


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One response to “Gazing through the looking glass: the black box of policy”

  1. cellis359 says :

    ‘we can look to government for leadership but the need for personal action is also required and to that end to mobilize the kind of change that is being suggested we must all act, at all levels’. This phrase leads me to share a recent experience at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF 2013)….
    the film ‘Salmon Confidential’ and talk afterwards by film-maker and scientist who made the film, shows how people can change policy and take actions leading to improvements in our environment. Although not a study about ‘climate change’ it is about ‘environment change.’ the film outlines the work of a biologist documenting evidence to show that salmon farming in British Columbia is leading to the demise of our wild salmon runs due to excretion of viruses from the farms into the rivers that they share with wild salmon. Here we see a passionate scientist, trying to change policies as well as the eating and buying habits of her fellow British Columbians to save the wild salmon. Taking steps towards a solution may be easier than we think: only eat and buy wild salmon. You can see the documentary at It may change your sushi experiences forever!

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