This chapter provides a research agenda that, if seriously pursued, holds promise of providing a more satisfactory explanation and guide. We take our cue from an observation made 35 years ago by a deeply informed scholar (Weiss, 1978, p. 26):
Social scientists tend to start out with the question: how can we increase the use of research in decision-making? They assume that greater use leads to improvement in decision-making. Decision makers might phrase it differently: how can we make wiser decisions, and to what extent, in what ways, and under what conditions, can social research help?
Weiss’s own answer to her question frames the issue in a way the committee finds helpful (Weiss, 1978, p. 78):
[H]ow to increase the use of social research in policy making is only one way to conceptualize the problem. An alternative view is: how can public policy making be improved, and what role can the social sciences play in that improvement? It may be that we have been concentrating too hard on the first formulation and not hard enough on the second.
Our proposed research framework is based on a view of policy makers engaged in an interactive, social process that assembles, interprets, and argues over science and whether it is relevant to the policy choice at hand and, if so, using that science as evidence supporting their policy arguments. Policy argument as a form of situated, practical reasoning directly leads to a concern with how evidence, in the specific way now defined, is used rather than how it is produced.
The research framework is presented under three headings: policy argumentation, psychological processes, and a systems perspective. Understanding science as evidence deployed in policy argument requires (1) investigating what makes good arguments in the policy domain—arguments that are accepted by policy makers as valid and sound—and the psychological processes influencing that acceptance; (2) investigating cognitive operations—mental models, schemata, prior knowledge, situated cognition, and related organizational circumstances—as well as institutional logics, practices, cultural assumptions (Coburn et al., in press; Hutchinson and Huberman, 1993; Spillane et al., 2002); and (3) investigating policy making from a systems perspective.