of science. Yet science as it accumulates can reduce the range of political disagreement.


Commentary on the use of science in public policy frequently argues that its use will produce better policy or improve policy making. We offer a narrower but, we believe, more scientifically sound position, particularly with reference to the social sciences. Social science does not promise “better policy.” It is not social engineering, misguided accusations notwithstanding. It is, simply, a guide to understanding problems, the conditions that give rise to those problems, and the outcomes likely to occur when policy addresses those problems. In this very specific sense, social, as well as natural sciences, are a more reliable (“better”) guide than what is otherwise available to policy makers in considering many issues.


The United States has established a loose but large network of institutions and practices focused on providing scientifically grounded descriptions and causal explanations of conditions that are or could become the object of policy attention. The next chapter uses the shorthand term “policy enterprise” to describe this network. Its workings, its funding, and its purposes are the proximate context for a fresh examination of the science-policy nexus generally and the issue of use in particular.

Chapter 3 moves to the substantive material of the report, reviewing how knowledge use has been studied over the last half-century, what has been learned from that research effort, and what remains poorly understood. Chapter 4 presents a research framework, briefly summarizing selected concepts and research fields—especially related to practical reasoning, cognitive and social psychology, and systems thinking—for their application to deepening understanding of how science interacts with policy. The final chapter explains who needs to do what to advance the research framework outlined in Chapter 4. Appendix A reviews selected research methods that are particularly appropriate for research related to public policy when the social science task is to describe causes and consequences of social conditions and to assess the outcomes when policy tries to change those conditions. Appendix B contains the biographical sketches of committee members and staff.

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