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Evidence is a policymaker’s biggest weapon

23 March 2022

Researchers have a responsibility to link their work to the issues facing the world – to provide general insight, but also to help policymakers evaluate how best to solve them, Jacquelyn Zhang writes.

Fundamentally, public policy is supposed to address serious social problems. However, poorly designed policies exist. Often this happens when a well-intentioned policy generates unexpected and unintended consequences, and sometimes, these consequences leave policymakers farther away from their goal than when they started.

Consider just a few examples.

The first is the impact of an immigration law that was used in the United States ostensibly to control the flow of undocumented immigrants into the country. The controversial bill imposes extreme restrictions on undocumented immigrants in the state of Alabama and limits every aspect of immigrants’ lives.

By employing a synthetic control methodology, the bill proved to have a substantial and negative unintended effect – an increase in violent crimes. This could be linked back to the bill because while violent crime increased, property crime did not.

This may be because the passage of one of the country’s strictest anti-immigration laws signalled to the community that the system had more tolerance for discrimination against undocumented immigrants in Alabama, fuelling distrust and eventually violent conflict.

This is not a freak event either. Policymakers know that enacting laws doesn’t just change the wording of legislation. It shapes social norms, prescribes attitudes, and affects community behaviour. Of course, this is also why good policy-making can be so productive.

As an Australian example, recent research on domestic violence in Australia found that women who out-earn their husbands are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. This suggests that the violation of the gender norm of males as ‘breadwinning’ can have violent results.

It also shows that to address domestic violence more effectively, in addition to increasing women’s economic wellbeing, policymakers need to focus on their overall social status.

This would involve acknowledging that women are surpassing men in many social roles traditionally dominated by men and introducing policies that seek to permanently weaken and change ingrained social norms, including that of men being the primary earner in a family. Without this perspective, efforts to improve their economic status may have unintended negative consequences.

For one last example, bushfires have been one of the biggest challenges faced by the Australian people in the face of climate change. Besides losses of property and the changes of environment, the hidden cost of bushfires to people living in or close to the bushfire-affected areas is understudied.

Policymakers need to understand more closely how bushfires affect children and pregnant women. Ongoing research is calling for particular attention to the protection of pregnant women and newborns during the bushfire season every year, and this evidence suggests that Australia needs a more comprehensive understanding of the overall cost of bushfires, rather than too closely focusing on economic damage.

These three examples demonstrate how the work of researchers must be used, both by the researchers themselves and policymakers, to positively affect policy-making. They also reveal how policy can be directed at the most serious social problems the community faces.

When potential unintended consequences are carefully considered, and researchers arm policymakers with the best evidence they can provide, public policy can be a powerful force for positive change.

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