Standards for evidence in policy decision-making

A multidisciplinary team of scientists, policymakers, government officials, and academics present a framework for classifying evidence used in policy.
Benefits from applying scientific evidence to policy have long been recognized by experts on both ends of the science-policy interface. The COVID-19 pandemic declared in March 2020 urgently demands robust inputs for policymaking, whether biomedical, behavioral, epidemiological, or logistical. Unfortunately, this need arises at a time of growing misinformation and poorly vetted facts repeated by influential sources, meaning there has never been a more critical time to implement standards for evidence.

In this piece, we present THEARI, a new framework to help set standards for the quality of evidence used in policy-making. This framework will help manage risks while also providing a reasonable pathway for applying breakthroughs in treatments and policy solutions in an attempt to stem the harm already impacting the well-being of populations around the world.

“For emphasis, I run some risk of overstatement.” – Charles Lindblom, 1959


There is growing demand for scientists to improve how they communicate evidence to decision-makers and the public (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2017). While finding common ground across scientific disciplines is often challenging (Johnson, 2013), effective science communication is crucial in assisting policymakers to design evidence-based interventions that will benefit entire populations. There is expanding investment into evidence-based practices. However, there remains substantial heterogeneity in standards for defining evidence across scientific fields and policy domains, which is especially a burden during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, where warnings have long been raised but were not fully heeded (Cheng et al., 2007). In this paper, we propose standard guidelines to support communicating evidence to policymakers. Such standards benefit scientific progress and policymakers while encouraging wider appreciation for empirical evidence.[1]

Evidence in policy

As of early 2017, all 50 US states and the District of Columbia demonstrate at least a modest level of integrating evidence into one or more policy domains (Pew-MacArthur, 2017). The absence of a common standard for identifying, defining, or integrating evidence into policy decisions, however, has resulted in substantial variability in how advanced these processes are.

With the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 now law in the United States, establishing such standards has immediate value. The “Evidence Act” involves a number of guidelines, notably influencing what policy areas are given priority, how information is disseminated, how agencies should aim to learn from evidence, and how to evaluate a range of policy actions. Yet, with the wide spectrum of content that can be treated as evidence, how best to identify reliable and appropriate sources will remain a challenge in government institutions. In spite of these challenges, increased emphasis on utilizing scientific insights presents a clear opportunity to improve standards for the application of evidence in policy.

Read the full paper at Nature Behavioural & Social Sciences