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If we want evidence-accountable policies, stop bashing MPs

Evidence in policy making was barely a discussion before the last election. That has changed, and not just on the subjects of climate change or crime, where politicians have made evidence the debating point for a while. But while Whitehall’s discussions about running policy trials and finding out what works are being celebrated, the research community regularly despairs of Westminster, of the low number of scientists there (likely even fewer after 7 May) and of the dreadful stories about how some of the members and committees treat evidence. Today our survey of MPs with Ipsos MORI shows they’re wrong to despair.

Nearly seventy per cent of MPs support or strongly support the use of randomised controlled trials to design and test social policy. Around half think that more trials of policy are inevitable. Few (just 9%) think the cost of RCTs is a barrier.

Should we be surprised by this? Yes and no.

Yes, because RCTs are clearly quite difficult to understand, beyond the initial proposition of testing policy. The survey, and the tentative nature of the views it captures, also shows that MPs in general lack confidence and knowledge about what is involved in trials. Around a third think that ‘randomly choosing’ who gets an intervention is unfair, while two-thirds support the use of pilot studies without control groups - experiments which still depend on groups not getting the intervention yet give less robust results. But that is not a cause for ridicule - it's an opportunity that the research community must leap upon.

And no, MPs’ positive attitudes to policy trials shouldn't actually be such a surprise – Westminster is supposed to hold the executive (Whitehall) to account. ‘Does it work?’ ‘What is the evidence?’ should surely be up there with ‘are you telling the truth?’ and ‘did you do as you promised?’ as questions they can ask of government. We should be fuelling and championing this happy congruity between their constitutional role and our questions about evidence in policy.

What is more, the Ipsos MORI survey – conducted face to face with MPs - also reminds us that ‎MPs have far greater experience of mediating policy issues with the public than many in the research community. They speak in human. While they rated research evidence high among the list of inputs they believe are most important for developing policy, 70% said they have used personal experience and constituents’ concerns to justify policies. Taken together these responses suggest sensitivity both to expertise and evidence, and to the human terms in which evidence and decisions need to be communicated. (The public’s preference for research to be communicated with vivid stories emerged in a study in 2014 by Ipsos MORI and the Royal Statistical Society in 2014.)

So instead of despairing of the lack of scientific research knowledge in Westminster, the research community needs to concentrate on how better to explain the benefits of randomised controls. They are, after all, the closest thing a politician will ever have to a magic wand. And as my colleague Chris Peters explains on the Ask for Evidence website, when voters start asking the MPs returned on 7th May about evidence they will be reminding those MPs that this is more than an esoteric concern of research design: it is an essential part of holding government to account on behalf of the rest of us.


Can your DNA predict what you look like?

On 30th January 2015 the Mail Online reported that forensic experts can use a person’s DNA to predict their eye and hair colour, freckling and the shape of their face.

The technique is called DNA phenotyping and uses genetic ancestry information from DNA to predict physical characteristics. The Mail article showed images from a US company that suggested using information from a person’s DNA, researchers could generate facial reconstructions for use in forensic police work.

DNA Phenotyping (C) Parabon Nanolabs

Dr Matthias Wienroth from the Northumbria University Centre for Forensic Science told us that “Determining face shape using DNA analysis is still at an early research stage, as many genes are involved. Analysing ancestry-informative markers is an emerging technology that can provide estimates of a person’s genetic ancestry rather than clear-cut information on the appearance of a person. This technique provides indicators for appearance based to some extent on our cultural expectations about, for example, the appearance of a person with Northern European ancestry compared to a person with East Asian ancestry. This is not the same nor as informative as analyses that use other genetic markers to provide information about a person’s externally visible characteristics such as face shape, eye or hair colour.”

The US company claims it can use as little as 0.05 nanograms of DNA for its tests, but Dr Wienroth says this “is probably a little ambitious for now, however, efforts are made – as part of so-called ‘next generation sequencing’ – to achieve analysis sensitivity to that level.”

Dr Wienroth concludes:

“Whilst DNA technologies for externally visible characteristics are at different stages of development, with hair and iris colour being the furthest along, they should be used with care so that investigators don’t expect a ‘photo-fit’ (as implied in the article by the use of the term ‘e-fit’). An article in the FT Magazine from 30 January emphasises that information about a person’s appearance, and on their genetic ancestry would only provide police with 'intelligence leads' rather than information than can be used as evidence.”

For more on this, read our guide: Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing.


An act of nuclear terrorism...but did it really put thousands at risk?

Amid growing tensions between the UK and Russia, the Alexander Litvinenko case has been hitting the headlines. On Wednesday 28th January national newspapers, including the Telegraph, Mirror, and Independent led with the story that a ‘radioactive trail’ left by the assassins over London meant that “many thousands of members of the public, both British residents and visitors from overseas, might have been at risk from the radioactivity” Robin Tam, QC.

But with quotes like “could have massacred thousands of people” how real was the risk to the general public? How much danger were the capital’s residents and visitors actually in?

We asked nuclear expert Dr John Roberts, Nuclear Fellow at the University of Manchester, about the level of risk posed by polonium-210 (210Po) – the substance used to poison Litvinenko.

“Polonium-210 is an alpha emitter, with a half life of 138 days, and is only dangerous if it somehow gets inside your body, as in the Litvinenko case.” In Dr Roberts opinion, for 210Po to have been a risk it would “require the person to have touched the polonium and then to have maybe licked their finger or some other way of getting the isotope inside their body” and  “just having it in the same room would not kill you.” The risk was mainly to the assassins and the people who handled the mode of delivery- the tea used to poison him.

The lack of casualties from the incident also testifies to the relatively low risk to the general public, as 210Po is highly radioactive and very toxic, so any deaths would have been seen soon after exposure. The half-life of polonium-210 is also very short, meaning that it would burn itself out and lose its potency quickly, much reducing the risk.

Dr Roberts' take home message was that “there was a risk, but it was limited by the fact that the 210Po had to enter the body.” So in reality the risk to the public was lower than these stories suggested.

Image by Pascal (CC BY 2.0)


Fact Check Central

From crime to children’s diets, to global development, to hair loss, facts form part of the arguments, and we often see different facts marshaled in support of different conclusions. We all benefit from lively debates but no-one benefits from reality being misrepresented, or from dismissing things that are true.

Because misleading claims and statistics tend to take on a life of their own, Sense About Science has been correcting simple factual errors in media reports for some years now, with For the Record, which has become a popular place for people to check. But it covers a relatively small range and over the past few years there have been several excellent initiatives in different kinds of fact checking. We’d love to see these used and discussed as widely as possible, and shared so that someone following one knows about the others.

Today we are launching Fact Check Central so that we can all read, search and share fact checking blogs from across the web.

Fact checking isn’t just about separating true from false. Done well, it can give proper context to claims, allow space for deeper understanding, and deflate the rhetoric and bluster that often surrounds controversial issues.

Fact Check Central is a simple, aggregated list of blogs from a selection of fact checking organisations, sorted by topic and in chronological order. We hope that it can become a helpful, single place to see if a story or claim has been – or is being – fact checked, and that you’ll use and share it.

And please do share this blog post on Twitter.


Axing Europe's top science job is a step backwards

This is an article published in the New Scientist. You can read the full piece here.

So Jean-Claude Juncker, the new president of the European Commission, has scrapped the role of chief scientific adviser.

No one will now bring scientific scrutiny to the political decisions of the Commission, the body at the heart of European policy-making that affects half a billion citizens across 28 nations. The most senior European regulators and law-makers no longer have a link to the evidence base of the European research community.

What Juncker announced was the termination of the Bureau of European Policy Advisers, which provided the commission's president, commissioners and directors-general with strategic advice. The chief scientific adviser role was based within this body. The replacement body Juncker proposes – the European Political Strategy Centre – does not include a similar science post.

The chief scientific adviser, working with scant resources and a lack of clarity, has only ever been a single thread rather than the many ropes that were needed. But the creation of the role was a recognition by policy-makers that science and evidence are tools for making better, more accountable policies. It was an aspiration, one which followed a series of directives that made little sense and were full of unintended consequences.

Continue reading at New Scientist