ZiF Research Group

The Epistemology of Evidence-Based Policy:
How Philosophy can Facilitate the Science-Policy Interface

February – June 2023

Convenors: Anne Schwenkenbecher (Murdoch U, AUS), Remco Heesen (U Western Australia, AUS), Chad Hewitt (Lincoln U, NZ)


How well do masks protect in the pandemic? How do the side effects of vaccination compare with the consequences of the disease? What is the impact of school closures on students’ mental health? During the Covid 19 pandemic, it has become clear how heavily political decisions rely on information from science. And it has become evident that research findings can inform policy decisions, but cannot replace them.

The pandemic has thus provided a vivid example of the problems posed by evidence-based policy (EBP) approaches. The basic idea of these approaches, which more and more governments are adopting, is that decisions should be based on evidence that can be or has been externally verified and validated. Measures and programs should also be reliably evaluated, preferably with the participation of interested citizens. This is intended to improve the quality of decisions and measures, while at the same time ensuring greater transparency and consistency in decision-making.

Yet adopting EBP creates epistemic responsibilities. First, it must be clear how information is obtained and how it is evaluated; when it is necessary to obtain additional information, and what information may not be considered at all. What, for example, counts as evidence? Who is responsible for providing evidence? Where should the burden of proof lie? Which experts can be trusted, especially when they disagree? How do the values and interests of individuals and organizations affect what evidence is gathered, how it is interpreted, and what policy decisions are made (partially) on that basis? How far do our epistemic obligations extend?

In addition, it must be clarified how decisions under uncertainty are made, because science, too, can usually provide only limited and provisional knowledge, for example, in the case of an emerging infectious disease. The questions scientists deal with are also very different from the questions politicians have to answer. Scientific results thus must be prepared in such a way that they can be understood by those responsible in politics, while politicians must at least to a certain extent engage with the scientific way of working and thinking to come to responsible decisions. Thus, communication problems often arise at the interface between science and politics.

How do we decide on the basis of statistical data? How should a study with a result that is statistically not significant be evaluated? How many test subjects are sufficient for a study to be convincing? How does the duty to seek further evidence relate to the duty to act quickly to save lives? In addition, how is scientific evidence evaluated in relation to other factors, such as communicability and acceptability of decisions for the public? Can the attempt to rely on scientific evidence do justice to the necessary complexity of political negotiation processes? Or could it ultimately lead to an escape from responsibility on the part of decision-makers?

Many of these challenges are ethical and epistemological in nature. Therefore, in this research group we bring together philosophers with policy makers and experts from the fields of science, politics, regulation and legislation. Together, we will explore successes and failures to acquire, consider or incorporate evidence into public policy, using real-world cases where conflicting values exists in environmental biosecurity and public health.

We will focus on three philosophical / epistemological that frequently arise at the science-policy interface:

1. (Mis)interpretation of scientific methods such as ‘underpowered’ studies or too few studies;
2. Biases in acquisition and consideration of evidence, including questions of the incentives for and rationality of biases;
3. Epistemic standards of due care.

Our goal is to develop an applied philosophical framework to facilitate and inform interactions at the science-policy interface.

Please direct any inquiries to Susanne Fizell.

+49 521 106-2792