Academic journal article Agricultural and Resource Economics Review

Economic Science and Public Policy

Academic journal article Agricultural and Resource Economics Review

Economic Science and Public Policy

Article excerpt

In this article, research on the application of science to policy issues is reviewed and applied to economic science. Economists who want their professionally credentialed economic research to have an impact on public policy are advised to consult with policy decision-makers in framing their research questions and throughout the research process, thus assuring that the resulting findings will be relevant. A minimal degree of bias in framing, conducting, and presenting research complements a high degree of relevance for the results, allowing economic research to make a difference.

Key Words: decision-making, policy relevant, research

Soon after he took office (on March 9, 2009], President Obama issued a memorandum on scientific integrity that opened with a statement reflecting the importance he places on science in the policy process:

Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

This and similar statements by the president and his cabinet members have given hope to anyone who wants her research to be policy-relevant. These statements invite science-biological, physical, social, and statistical science, genomics, informatics, economics, climatology, hydrology, phytopathology, and more-to truly inform policy decisions. In this article, I explore how food, agricultural, and resource economists might best take advantage of these opportunities.

I approach this subject with an upfront admission that production of policy-relevant economic science is extremely difficult. The institution of science prides itself on "arms length" objectivity, peer review, skepticism, and acknowledgement of uncertainty whereas policies arise from interested parties' messy negotiations, often on a timescale that precludes what economists would independently define as adequate to conduct deliberative research. Still, the reasoned merger of scientific and policy processes while retaining the principles that underlie each can yield powerful solutions to "wicked" problems.1

Policy-related versus Policy-relevant Science

I think that most economists, if asked, could relate their research to a policy issue, great or small. Adaptation to climate change, for example, could be informed by basic research on the economic factors that are necessary and sufficient for society to gain from adaptive behavior. But is research that can be associated with a policy issue necessarily policy-relevant? Research that has great potential for usefulness in policy decision-making is not likely to be policy-relevant if its production adheres to the conceptually described "linear model" of science.

The linear model, popular since Vannevar Bush's (1945] landmark report, Science: The Endless Frontier, suggests that basic research is the font of knowledge from which innovation arises after sequential transformations of basic findings into practical applications. In this representation, research findings are disseminated on a silver platter as "truth" to people who can put that truth into a technological or policy context. There is a major problem with this approach-sometimes there is no one there to accept the platter.

For example, a common policy analysis from economists will select multiple approaches (e.g., regulation, taxation, and subsidies] to deal with a real policy problem (e.g., a need to reduce nitrogen runoff in a water system]. Using data from actual cost schedules and simulations of nitrogen runoff from various intensities of each policy approach, the economist can determine the most economically efficient approach and the optimal amount of nitrogen runoff from an efficiency standpoint. This typical research frame yields results that are insightful, highly credible professionally, and well meaning in the policy context but that avoid the reality of the messy processes involved in agri- environmental policy decision-making. …

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