Evidence-informed decision-making starts with small talk

The importance of evidence-based decision-making has become a mantra among those in the research and innovation community who wish to influence public policy. But science and policy don’t always make easy companions.

Dr. Jiaying Zhao is a cognitive scientist at the University of British Columbia. At a reception following the recent Science Meets Parliament event in Ottawa, we fell to talking about the proposed carbon tax. “It won’t work,” she told me. Why? “Because it’s not big enough.”

Zhao pointed to recent research suggesting that a modest carbon tax may actually drive up emissions. If the cost is too small, people could actually embrace behaviours that produce GHGs even more, unconsciously believing they’ve earned the right to do so. “People may be perfectly happy to pay the small fee and feel justified to consume more gas, so the deterrence effect may backfire,” Zhao explained. According to this theory, only a hefty tax will motivate citizens and companies to take more carbon-neutral actions.

Of course, research into the effectiveness of the carbon tax is ongoing, but surely no one wants to hear that it should cost even more. Even if the outcomes of research don’t conform to convenient narratives, however, science needs to be part of the conversation when policy is being made.

Events like Science Meets Parliament affirm a strategy to make evidence-informed decision-making a stronger reality for Canadian politics: small talk. Informal, low-stakes conversations about research and policy may open doors that then stay open when the stakes are higher.

Mark Mann, Managing Editor