Psychological science does indeed provide a wealth of knowledge to inform policy debates and decisions. In the area of education policy alone (where evidence-based innovations are now mandated by law), the science of psychology informs our understanding of basic mechanisms of learning, memory, reading and reasoning. We know much about the role of social, emotional and motivational factors bearing on academic achievement. We can draw upon a rich tradition of research to guide the implementation of testing and assessment. The National Academies have helped to synthesize much of this scientific wisdom. Books such as "How People Learn" (2000) and "Knowing What Students Know" (2001) are good examples.
The federal agencies provide funding to keep the basic research going. The National Science Foundation is investing significant resources to fund Science of Learning Centers, which will emphasize basic research on learning. The newly formed Institute of Education Sciences within the Department of Education provides funding in support of evidence-based education. These are all positive and exciting developments, and psychology has good reason to be proud of its contributions.
Asking a different question
What does it take for science to inform policy decisions? In part, it is a matter of getting the results known, understood and synthesized in a form that policy-makers recognize and appreciate. Before that can happen, however, the science needs to be done. When we talk about the need for science to inform policy, or the need for innovation to be based on evidence, it is assumed that the science and the evidence exists. In some cases, it does. In most cases, however, the evidence is still accumulating--the science is a work in progress. This is where the relationship between science and policy can benefit by turning the question around: Rather than asking what science can do for policy, ask what policy can do for science.
Donald Stokes, author of "Pasteur's Quadrant" (Brookings Institution Press, 1997), suggested that science and the choice of problems that occupy science can be described along two separate dimensions. One is whether or not the problem involves a quest for fundamental understanding--uncovering basic mechanisms and processes. The other is whether or not the problem is motivated by a practical need to know--when scientific evidence is needed to inform a socially important question.
Stokes introduced these two dimensions in an effort to dismantle the false dichotomy between basic and applied research. In his view, these two dimensions co-exist, and it is the intersection between the quest for fundamental understanding and the practical need to know that Stokes labeled Pasteur's quadrant. Motivated by the practical need to prevent food from spoiling, Pasteur uncovered previously unimagined forms of life. Basic science was advanced because people had a practical need to know.
Give and take
In many ways, the relationship between policy and science is an example of Pasteur's quadrant. Policy questions and debates provide the practical questions that need to be answered. Basic science can be motivated by those questions and will effectively answer them by contributing to the fundamental knowledge of how things work. Scientists need feel no shame when their work is motivated by practical questions, and they should display no modesty in offering their results when they inform those questions.
The science of psychology is firmly grounded in Pasteur's quadrant, perhaps more than any other field of science. To cite just a few examples, consider that it is psychology that seeks to understand the etiology of drug abuse, the effects of media portrayals of violence, the human dimensions of technological innovation, the origin and amelioration of learning disabilities and the cognitive and emotional underpinnings of mental health. Policy debates already benefit from what we know in these areas. With continuing research, policy will become increasingly informed.
It is a real strength of psychology that our science is simultaneously motivated by and offers answers to the questions that society and policy-makers want answered. If psychological scientists look to policy for inspiration, society will have psychology to thank for addressing their questions.