There is continuing interest in using the best available research evidence to inform public health policy. However, all too often efforts to do so rely on mechanistic and unrealistic views of the process by which public policy is made. As a result, traditional dyadic knowledge translation (KT) approaches may not be particularly effective when applied to public policy decision making. However, using examples drawn from public health policy, it is clear that work in political science on multiplicity, hierarchy and networks can offer some insight into what effective KT might look like for informing public policy. To be effective, KT approaches must be more appropriately tailored depending on the audience size, audience breadth, the policy context, and the dominant policy instrument.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many leaders claimed that their public health policy decisions were ‘following the science’; however, the literature on evidence-based policy problematises the idea that this is a realistic or desirable form of governance. This article examines why leaders make such claims using blame avoidance theory. Based on a qualitative content analysis of two national newspapers in each of Australia, Canada and the UK, we gathered and focused on unique moments when leaders claimed to ‘follow the science’ in the first six months of the pandemic. We applied Hood’s theory to identify the types of blame avoidance strategies used for issues such as mass event cancellation, border closures, face masks, and in-person learning. Politicians most commonly used ‘follow the science’ to deflect blame onto processes and people. When leaders’ claims to ‘follow the science’ confuse the public as to who chooses and who should be held accountable for those decisions, this slogan risks undermining trust in science, scientific advisors, and, at its most extreme, representative government. This article addresses a gap in the literature on blame avoidance and the relationship between scientific evidence and public policy by demonstrating how governments’ claims to ‘follow the science’ mitigated blame by abdicating responsibility, thus risking undermining the use of scientific advice in policymaking.