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How does science impact public decision-making? The dark art explained.

Science, engineering, and technically complex stuff are essential to good decision-making. At the very least, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted to us all how much the public sector (and related organisations) does rely on good science, done well and embedded into decision-making to deliver public value. People ask us at Science into Action how this process works. How does science get from the sciency bit into the decision-making part and then on to make a difference?

In this piece I will explore the process of making impact with science in the public sector and what happens when science impacts decision-making. To really understand this, it is helpfully to step back and look at some definitions first.

What is public value?

Like many things, the easiest way to understand public value is to talk about what it is and contrast it to what it is not.

There are many definitions. In his book, Prof. Mark Moore (1995) “Creating Public Value” gave the clearest statement about public value. Have a look at that if you want a formal definition. In an organisational sense, it is the value that the organization contributes to society. It is about things that are consumed collectively and are often considered by many less tangible albeit essential to the health and prosperity of the society, e.g. wellbeing; liveability; biodiversity; education; transport; clean air and water; cultural health – the list can go on.

These are the things that make a society function but are often not traded or sold per se. And often they are not measured and counted as clearly as commercial outputs. Aside from the social enterprise movement and B-Corps in the USA, public value is often the exclusive domain of Governments and organisations that support their objectives. There are often multiple and unclear, or unstandardised ways to measure these elements of public value and very rarely are there standard and broadly accepted measures of successfully impacting public value. Thankfully high-level international frameworks now exist – see UN Sustainable Development Goals. However there are no current standard frameworks or approaches that take a piece of science and turn it into public value.

In contrast private value is much easier to count and trade. It is private wealth generated. It is shareholder value. The outcomes of private value generation are consumed individually (via payment) and there are accepted ways for science to go from a discovery into commercial production. This is possible as there is a clear, standard single measure of impact –$. Taking science into private value leads to IP, commercialised outputs, patents, and sales.

Note that in our system of Government there is a fundamental yin and yang relationship between generating public and private value. Often Governments seed markets for both public and private outcomes. And we can all think of commercial products that exist to improve a public value.

Why does this all matter for science and decision-making?

For us here at Science into Action, where the dichotomy becomes important is when people are trying to get science to have an impact. Whether it is a decision-maker looking for science for decisions, or a scientist looking to have some science influence a decision… knowing how to translate the science into public value is essential. Even though the process of using science in a commercial sense is complex (and it can be), there are at least many accepted pathways with quite mature frameworks and approaches (e.g. accelerators, start-ups, innovation hubs, IP exchanges, Venture Capital investment, patents etc etc). However, the pathways for getting science used to impact public value decision-making is like a dark art!

Codifying the dark art of science impact…

To do something easier/better/smarter we need to understand how it works and at Science into Action we break down the process of getting science to influence public value into 4 crucial parts.

This all originates by wondering how the science can reach its full potential. We think it is about getting the best science into the heads and hands of people who can use it to make things better – who can have impact. This is often about working with the people who produce the science and giving them the skills, knowledge, and tools to get that science used.

The process continues with a decision to act by those who are using the science. They will know what needs to be done and often need to sharpen their understanding of how and when (and sometimes who needs to be involved). Knowledge, data, and expertise open amazing possibilities. But which of them to choose? What are the options? How do we get the most from the science?

Action is so simple to say and sometimes in the public sector it is hard to make happen. There are ways of doing things that work, and ways that don’t. Science is one of many uncontested inputs into public sector decision-making. How do decision-makers drive action with science? How do we know the actions taken will make a measurable difference, be appropriate and improve public value?

Ultimately, this is about protecting and creating public value so that we all realise the benefits of a healthy economy, community, and ecology. In our science impact framework, public value is the beneficiary of science used to support good decision-making in the public sector. This explains why we do what we do at Science into Action. It is also where we are most skilled.

So, what is science impact?

While the impact is seen as a benefit to public value, the process of science impact happens in the exchange between the producers and users of science. It happens when science is used in decisions to drive action to make change.

Science impact lives in that overlap between science, decision and action. At Science into Action we work with you to be better at science impact. We help make that dark art clearer. We have practical techniques, approaches and even some tools to enable science to be used for decisions that lead to action.

Check out what we do and get in touch to find a solution that works for you using science, engineering, and technical expertise to make a difference with public sector decision-making. You can find out more about who we are and how we work here.

And finally, please tell us about your stories of how to make impact with science in public sector decision-making.


Contact us


+61 (0) 418 393 489


PO Box 46, Fairfield VIC Australia 3078

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