We need evidence-based solutions to all of society’s problems

The disturbing outbreak of measles in the United States and climate change share a common enemy: The unwillingness of some decision-makers to examine and accept scientific evidence. In the case of measles, the decision-makers we’re talking about are parents who opt out of vaccinations for their children. In the case of climate change, the decision-makers are those members of Congress who reject action to lower the level of greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet. To best deal with societal problems, it’s time for our nation to fully embrace “evidence-based practices,” meaning they have been established as effective via scientific analyses.

The current use of such practices in the social services is a good model to explore and be applied to all our ills. There is a growing, bipartisan trend in both Congress and federal agencies to promote social services programs that have been proven to work. This approach is also appealing across both parties because  it strives for accountability – not wasting government money on ineffective programs.

{mosads}Movement toward this approach is happening on several fronts.

  • Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced a bill for an evidence-based policymaking commission emphasizing the need to gather data to evaluate federal programs.

  • Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate for Social Impact Bonds, where private investors’ money leads to a pay-off later if the programs save the government money. The intention is to promote investment in effective programs.

  • A reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was recently re-introduced, in a bipartisan vote, to stress more accountability and evidence-based programs.

  • The White House and Office of Management and Budget have directed federal agencies to base more of their work on what has been validated by scientific means.

    Interest groups have emerged emphasizing this need to use science in making policy decisions. For example, there are well-utilized registries of rigorously evaluated interventions, like the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy and Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development.  Organizations seeking to ensure that legislators base their policy on scientific evidence include MDRC, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and Results for America, among others.  The National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives (NPSC) emphasizes the extra savings and human benefits of utilizing evidence-based programs to prevent problems before they emerge. At the same time, foundations are now investing more in such groups, as influencing policy will further their social services interests.

    The same bipartisan approach of utilizing science is necessary in other policy areas as well, particularly climate change.  As with preventative human interventions, analyses have shown that beyond the benefits to the environment and the human condition, preventing further damage from climate change — and in fact striving to reverse the effects — will save money in the long term. There is also evidence to suggest that the right kind of policy on climate change will have a positive effect on our nation’s economy.  Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), a firm that corporations, governments and academic institutions turn to for economic forecasting, conducted a study on the proposal from Citizens’ Climate Lobby known as Carbon Fee and Dividend. The study looked at a fee on the carbon content of fossil fuels, starting at $10 per ton of carbon dioxide, which increases $10 per ton each year. All of the revenue from the fee would be returned to every household in equal shares. Here’s what REMI found: After 10 years, CO2 emissions would be cut 33 percent and 2.1 million jobs would be added to the economy, primarily because of the economic stimulus of recycling tremendous amounts of revenue into the pocket of people who are likely to spend the money.

    I hope those on both sides of the aisle who know the importance of evidence-based decision-making in implementing social services programs will apply those same principles to other policy areas, where the evidence, e.g., for climate change, is stronger and deserving of even more confidence.  And they need to bring their reluctant colleagues on board for the benefit of all. When it comes to important policies, science is the vaccine that prevents bad decisions in all policy areas, like the ones currently being made by some about measles and climate change.

Wollman, Ph. D. is a senior fellow at the Bentley Service-Learning Center, Bentley University, Waltham, Mass.

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