A colleague just forwarded to me an invitation to an event run by the Alliance for Useful Evidence on the topic of ‘Broadening the evidence base: science and social science in social policy’. ‘Broadening’ by this account means drawing on ‘the distinctive contributions can the natural sciences, engineering and social sciences’ – presumably the disciplines that can offer ‘useful evidence’ (I can’t quite get Thomas the ‘really useful engine’ out of my mind here). The idea of ‘useful evidence’ seems to me to collude with the highly problematic proposition of ‘evidence-based policymaking’, with all its misunderstandings, elisions and conflations. Rather than challenge the proposition itself, ‘useful evidence’ here merely stretches the definition (a bit like adding letters to the acronym STEM to stake a claim for disciplinary significance).
The January session on ‘Experts, publics and open policy’ offers at first glance greater potential for a genuinely broader discussion. The agenda describes (in rather predictable terms) the divide between ‘hard evidence’ (from economics or science) and ‘public opinion and attitude’. So this should be one to which historians can ‘usefully’ contribute, particularly those who have been pioneers for various forms of history in public. But will they even be there to do so? The message seems to be that the debate about ‘useful evidence’ is not for us.