By the end of the 20th century, a multibillion dollar policy enterprise was in place, drawing on private philanthropic support as well as federal and state funding. The task of this loosely interconnected policy enterprise is to describe social conditions, advise on policy interventions, test alternative program designs, and evaluate outcomes. This work is funded on the promise that good science will be used to decide what social conditions need attention, what should be a public responsibility or better left to the market or not-for-profit actors, and what interventions—to grow the economy, improve welfare, protect security—are efficient and effective.
As the policy enterprise expanded and extended its reach, interest mounted in whether its knowledge products were being adequately used. Continued investment in producing the knowledge suggested it was used and valued, but how valuable and for whom was uncertain. This uncertainty was addressed in a 1978 National Research Council report, Knowledge and Policy: The Uncertain Connection. The report found that, despite numerous social science studies of policy interventions and steps to increase their relevance to and use for policy making, “we lack systematic evidence as to whether these steps are having the results their sponsors hope for.…”
More than three decades later our report returns to the “uncertain connection,” to again ask what is known about how scientific knowledge is used in public policy and how it can be more effectively used. The Committee on the Use of Social Science Knowledge in Public Policy was charged by the National Research Council “to review the knowledge utilization and other relevant literature to assess what is known about how social science knowledge is used in policy making … [and] to develop a framework for further research that can improve the use of social science knowledge in policy making.”
The first charge, to assess what is known, led us to an early and obvious point. Knowledge from all the sciences is relevant to policy choices: the physical sciences inform energy policy on renewable efficiencies; the biological sciences inform public health policy on infectious diseases; the engineering sciences inform national defense policy on weapon design; the social sciences inform economic policy on international trade trends. Understanding whether, why, and how this scientific knowledge is used, however, is uniquely suited to the methods and theories of the social sciences. Making “use” of scientific knowledge is what people and organizations do. And what people and organizations do is the focus of social science.
To date, there has not been much success in explaining the use of science in public policy. We base this statement on three findings. First,