• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 12th May, 2015
Communicating Research FindingsInterpreting Evidence

Belief trumps evidence for MPs

MPs are more likely to rely on their personal beliefs than on evidence from randomised controlled trials when justifying support for policies, suggests a recent survey.

These findings are based on a survey of 104 members of the previous parliament, interviewed in November and December 2014. Sense About Science, a charitable trust focusing on connecting members of the public and scientific evidence, joined forces with the research group Ipsos MORI to identify how MPs think and talk about randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and other types of research evidence.

So how did MPs report using scientific evidence in their decision making?

Only 23% of MPs surveyed felt that findings from RCTs should be one of the top two or three things that politicians pay attention to when making decisions. In contrast, 31% felt that findings from pilot schemes without a control group were important in decision-making. Evidence from experts had the highest support, with half (50%) of MPs agreeing that advice from academics or think tanks should be one of the foremost things taken into consideration.

Here at Investing in Children, we have been thinking recently about guidance to help decision makers interpret the result of randomised trials. We have profiled articles focusing on how to interpret trials which show no impact on outcomes and on methods to help think about applying RCT findings more broadly.

There is a common thread between these discussions. Interpreting evidence is not always straightforward. Communicating what the evidence says can be difficult – for researchers and decision makers alike.

Indeed, only 25% of MPs surveyed by Sense About Science had used evidence from RCTs to justify a policy that they support. The views of constituents were most frequently used to justify policies (75%), followed by MPs’ own principles (73%) and expert advice (73%).

Last November, we considered why policy makers don’t make more use of research evidence. We reported on a systematic review conducted by Kathryn Oliver and colleagues from the University of Manchester, which found that one barrier to using research evidence was that the resulting guidance was too vague to apply in the real world. Good communication skills and good relationships between researchers and policy makers, however, were amongst the most frequently reported facilitators identified in the review to improve collaboration and access to evidence.

Could this be why expert advice is used more often by MPs than findings from individual studies in both making and justifying decisions? The recent survey from Sense about Science doesn’t look at why politicians value different evidence in different ways, suggesting that this is an interesting area for further research.

Zoe Wrigley

Researcher, Social Research Unit at Dartington 

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