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Building trust in science will require democratizing evidence

Building trust in science will require democratizing evidence
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As the Biden administration prepares to take office, it will need to remedy a distrust of science, which, though stoked by Trump, has a much longer history. While some believe that people who distrust science are being willfully ignorant, the reality is that people of all political mindsets have good reasons to distrust research and data. The medical and social sciences — like other American institutions — have been plagued by systemic racism, from the Tuskegee syphilis study to contemporary portrayals of the deficits of Black families. The federal government’s evidence-based policy initiatives also have alienated some low-income and minoritized communities as top-down imperatives driven by far-away policymakers in Washington D.C.

In the next era of federal policymaking, we should build trust in science by incorporating democratic principles. Those most marginalized by racism, poverty, and xenophobia will need a place at the table in shaping research priorities and the use of evidence in policymaking. The Biden administration can launch a new era of equity-centered, evidence-informed policymaking by 1) incorporating community and practitioner perspectives in setting national research priorities, 2) ensuring equitable access to and use of federally-funded research findings, and 3) mandating community and practitioner engagement in federally-supported research programs and projects.

Democratizing evidence would foster an informed citizenry, in which those furthest from opportunity could influence the development and use of evidence to drive stronger government, policy, and practice. Parents would be able to leverage research and data to advocate for high-quality schooling for their children. The recipients of public services would have a say in how their administrative data is used to drive service improvement. Government would be transparent about their use of evidence in public policy, and the public would be equipped to hold government officials accountable for their evidence claims.

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The U.S. education system provides a good example of how evidence in policymaking can make the difference or be a hindrance. In driving “what works” programs into schools and using data to drive high-stakes accountability, policymakers have stoked backlash from educators. We saw this dynamic play out with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which positioned data within a high-stakes policy context. While some saw it as a victory for evidence in policy, others saw it as a way to use data to punish under-resourced schools. Policy efforts to leverage data on teacher effectiveness were also seen by some as using data to hire and fire teachers rather than to support them in their day-to-day work.

A democratized evidence-informed policy agenda would instead work with teacher, school, and district leaders to identify the research and data they need to improve school systems.

We can see early examples of how this is working. The Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence in Montgomery County, Md., is a group of community, parent, and student organizers who are using research and data to advocate for greater equity in their school district. In St. Paul, Minn. community resistance reversed a controversial data-sharing initiative that could label children as potential future criminals. Beyond the education field, Sense About Science trains and equips individual citizens to demand evidence from their policymakers.

Still, it’s not enough to demand that people trust evidence on principle. Trust must be built. It must be earned.

I entered the research profession because I thought research could make our society more just. What I have observed often works against that aspiration. We need to center practitioners and communities in evidence building and use. They should have a say in how their data is used. This is all a part of democratizing evidence to benefit the U.S. education system, and there are resources to help people do this effectively.

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In NCLB and its successor ESSA, the major misstep of these twenty years has been not engaging educators and communities in meaningful ways. But it is possible. We can engage communities in identifying where research is needed. We can support parents in wielding data to advocate for the schooling they want for their children.

It’s time to flip the script on data and evidence in order to build up trust in science and the good it can do.

Not doing so with urgency will harm our nation’s recovery from the pandemic and obstruct our ability to advance racial justice across our systems, including public education.

Building trust requires that researchers and policymakers approach the scientific process with humility by engaging directly with communities and practitioners to set an evidence-informed agenda. Research that isn’t democratized will continue to alienate rather than unite.

Vivian Tseng is a senior vice president at the William T. Grant Foundation.