they optimize and when they satisfice; why they organize themselves, form institutions, communicate, establish norms, and develop routines; how they assess risks; and how they make decisions, individually and collectively. This array of scientific specialties has never fully addressed a key issue: when, why, how, even whether science is used in public policy making. Research can explain the cognitive operations and biases that policy makers and scientists bring to their work and the context-specific situations, practices, logics (ways of reasoning and understanding), and cultural assumptions of the settings in which they operate. Relevant research fields include social psychology, behavioral economics, decision theory, and organizational sociology. We urge scholars in these and related specialties to investigate the use of scientific knowledge in policy making.

Policy interventions unfold in large, complex, dynamic social systems. A systems perspective helps decision makers and researchers think broadly about the many effects a policy may produce and the ways in which a planned social intervention interacts with other existing interventions and institutional practices. Rarely can the study of the individual components of a system lead to a full understanding of the system. There are systems effects on individual actors and the system as a whole, including emergent, indirect, and delayed effects, as well as unintended and unpredictable consequences from the interactivity of a system’s elements. The social sciences bring a variety of approaches and methodologies to the study of complex systems. Examples of the use of systems thinking in the study of national security, obesity prevention, and the evaluation of complex social interventions illustrate its potential utility in policy making more broadly.


The three actors central to advancing and applying the research framework are established scholars in the fields and specialties identified above, Ph.D. candidates in those fields and specialties, and administrators and faculty responsible for curricula in schools and programs characterized by the term “policy education.”

Established scholars have long-range research agendas and are not easily persuaded to drop them to pursue new questions. New research fields nevertheless emerge when even a few established scholars focus their theories and methods on a major question getting little attention. Among decision-making theorists, cognitive psychologists, and scholars of system

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