ETH, STP

Cornerstone Course – Day 1: Policy Example Cases

Scientist could help analysts creating policies with their knowledge. But how do they provide their input? How does it fit with the political landscape?

Three case studies were in the spotlight to see dilemma of policy analysis. This is not an in-depth analysis of policy analysis, but rather an observation of policies and their consequences.

Case 1 – Misunderstanding a policy:

An introductory case study is the new labelling by the FDA to get started discussing policy analysis.

Obesity is considered an issues by the FDA*). The FDA’s policy is meant create awareness. Due to the policy design the labels are meant to show the level of consumption as happening in the general population compared to recommended consumption based on scientific research. Studies suggest that people perceive the label to mean the latter rather than the former. So they take the average consumption as the recommended consumption.

The study can be critiqued as to whether it is generalizable to all food labels and do whether the scientific rigour was enough to support the hypothesis.

*) In a free society people should be able to choose whether they take up the danger of obesity. However, they cause externalities and those need to be considered as well and this is where the state steps in. The decision to step in is often economical, but may also be moral.

Case 2 – What is a policy aimed at:

Another case study is recycling. The underlying question is how to reduce waste? This question already opens more questions as there is no well definition of waste. It could be primary waste (collected before processing) or final waste (after recycling has taken place). Switzerland for instance has one of the highest primary waste levels, but a very low final waste level. Currently, there is a discussion in Switzerland whether the primary waste needs to be reduced to begin with, if the final waste levels are so long.

“Waste is something valuable that is at the wrong place at the wrong time”. – Anonymous

The problem is, that some problems could be technical like Micro-pollutants in water  (in waste water plants) whereas others like recycling require social engineering. Both need different policy solutions and approaches.

Case 3 – Who is burdened with a policy:

Organ replacement are another contested issue. It is not a free market where you can buy an organ as it is believed that rich people would benefit and poor would be left behind. However, currently organs cannot be artificially produced, so organ donation is the only option. Policy-wise there have been two approaches: opt-in and opt-out. Most countries require opt-ins and have low participation rates whereas opt-out countries (e.g. Austria) have very high participation rates. From a supply/demand perspective an opt-out seems to be the more efficient option, yet opt-in is the de facto default worldwide. Information and effort is a key factor. Opt-in means that a willing donor needs to make the decision, whereas the opt-out requires unwilling donors to decide. Switzerland has opted for opt-in in contrast to the similar Austria.

Similar issues are found for energy-mix, CO2-offset and other opt-in/opt-out policies

When is it a policy?

Policy is a statement within a defined unit (e.g. a sovereign state or a company). A (democratic) state can intervene in a society as it has the legitimacy and power to define policies. Another factor is that only the government can collect resources and redistribute them. A policy without an executing entity is merely an idea.

Summary of the morning:

Humans think linear. Therefore predictions of the future are often off as humans are bad at estimating non-linear processes. Most policies need many years – even decades – whereas politics work often from months to a few years. Technology arises in 30 to 75 years. The problem to solve is multi-scale as the necessities of each process work on a different scale. The course and institute what to bridge those time-scales.

Some definitions:

Effective means goal-attainment whereas efficient means how cost-efficient is it (in comparison to something else).

Technology is about how we manipulate the environment to the use of humans. Science is the underlying rules independent of humans and technology. Policy is the set of rules we gives ourselves to hopefully improve our conditions. Politics is the process of getting there.

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