Public Policy

Social science disciplines concerned with human development have a long, if turbulent, history of interaction with public policy. The origins of current day relations between developmental science and public policy are usually traced back to the reform movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s focused on the urban poor, public health, labor conditions, and juvenile crime. Those seeking social reform explicitly harnessed the evidence provided by those seeking to understand human development for the purpose of improving lives and, thereby, improving society. Their efforts led to the first laws governing child labor, maternal and child health, and compulsory education, as well as to social institutions such as public health and child guidance clinics and the juvenile courts. Since this time, the relationship between the scientific study of human development and public policy has experienced periods of retrenchment initiated by, for example, the emergence of positivist social science during the 1920s, and periods of intensive collaboration led in by, for example, the “war on poverty” of the 1960s and, more recently, education, juvenile justice, and welfare reform. This tension between social science as an arms-length, objective endeavor and as an explicit tool of social reform remains an abiding dilemma facing the human development and public policy enterprise.

What Is Public Policy?

Public policy addresses legal, legislative, and administrative decision making at all levels of government. The range and complexity of the activities this encompasses have confounded efforts to place clear boundaries around the domain of public policy. It can concern a vote in the U.S. Congress or a city council, a court decision, the issuance of regulations guiding implementation of a law, the appointment of an agency director, or an Executive Order. The nature of the human policy issues in question include the familiar domains of health and nutrition, education, labor, social security, and welfare, but also encompass transportation (e.g., seat belt and maximum speed laws), taxation (e.g., child tax credit), agricultural (e.g., use of pesticides), immigration (e.g., family reunification), and defense (e.g., military child care) issues.

Rational models trace the policy process from the transformation of a social problem into a policy issue through to the implementation and evaluation of an enacted policy. In practice, it is difficult to portray the complex dynamics of public policy making. Public policies are not “made” at some discernable place and time, but rather are the product of numerous decisions fashioned incrementally over a prolonged period of time. The process inevitably involves a heterogeneous, largely uncoordinated, and vast number of participants with differing roles, agendas, values, and capacities for influence and thus centers on resolving conflicts of interest. Policies and laws are shaped by a variety of conditions, events, and actors that are intricately, but not logically, interwoven. As a result, rational  models  must  be  complemented  by  portrayals that capture the unpredictability, fragmentation, contentiousness, and multiple influences that bear on the policy process.

Science-Policy Intersection

As many have pointed out, this characterization of  the  policy  process  contrasts  sharply  with  basic elements of the scientific process. It has been noted, for example, that science seeks truth, legal procedures seek justice, and legislative policy seeks allies. The scientific method attempts to screen out the influence of personal values, whereas the policy process explicitly contends with competing values. Science has led to views of human behavior as multiply determined; policy and legal debates tend to hold individuals responsible for their actions. Rules of evidence also vary dramatically across these differing arenas. Yet, science and policy are both conservative, incremental processes. They attempt to be cumulative insofar as major questions and issues are revisited over time in light of new developments. Policies, like scientific research, are based on hypotheses about human behavior and the actions— interventions, tax incentives, sanctions—that will affect it. Thus, despite a measure of mutual skepticism among those who function in these two realms, there is also substantial common ground.

Rationales For Human Development Policy

Policy involvement in matters of human development derives primarily from two rationales. Police power justifies intervention when public safety is placed at risk. Parens patriae (literally, the State as parent) provides the framework for government intervention in the lives of dependent children whose family circumstances place them at risk, as well as for impaired adults. As exemplified by juvenile justice and child welfare (e.g., foster care) policies, these rationales often cast government involvement as a last resort when private (i.e., family) solutions to problems have failed and draw attention away from preventive interventions.

Other rationales, which place a greater emphasis  on  promoting  social  goals  and  avoiding  social costs (rather than on preventing harm to individuals), have also been used to argue successfully for policy involvement in human development. A significant legacy of the civil rights movement is a set of policies designed to promote equal opportunity that extend to employment and disability issues. Public education also carries this banner, although the federal role in education remains largely focused on children who are poor or who have disabilities, and thus continues to invoke parens patraie. Public health policy emphasizes the avoidance of health and economic costs to the broader society.

Policy for America’s aged is somewhat unique in that economic dependency is an inevitable aspect of old age; a condition that occurs through no fault of their own, presumably after a lengthy period of economic contribution. As a result, benefits such as Social Security and Medicare do not carry the ambivalence or stigma that accompany many public benefits for younger populations. Rather, they were established as a right or entitlement, not an act of benevolence; are designed not only to relieve old-age dependency, but to prevent it; and now approach universal coverage.

Contributions Of Research

Efforts to identify the salient forces that shape public policy have assigned research a relatively minor, although not inconsequential, role. It competes with (1) contextual factors, including social, economic, demographic, political, and ideological influences, that shape the overall context of policymaking at any given time; (2) constituency pressures exerted by both organized and unorganized individuals and groups; (3) principles and ideas that shape policymakers’ visions and policy goals; (4) institutions and institutional actors that establish the infrastructure within which  the  power  to  shape  policy  is  defined;  and (5) the media and its powerful ability to shape what people think about as well as their opinions about salient issues. All these forces, including research, intersect and interact against the backdrop of existing policy and legal precedent established through prior court decisions, prevailing legal doctrine, and existing legislative frameworks.

The  contributions  of  research,  as  it  enters  this mix of influences, have been loosely categorized as (1) knowledge building: contributing to the fundamental understanding of social and behavioral processes, (2) problem-exploring: contributing to the definition of social problems, (3) policy-forming: contributing to the formulation of policies or the resolution of legal questions addressing specific social problems, and (4) program-directing and evaluating: contributing to the design, evaluation, and improvement of established policies and programs.

Across these broad categories of policy-relevant research, efforts to understand how research is used to inform, shape, or support public policy have identified  two  contrasting  models.  The  first  focuses  on direct, instrumental applications of research on human development  to  the  resolution  of  pending  legal  or policy decision. Submission of amicus briefs and presentation of expert testimony provide clear examples of instrumental applications. The second “enlightenment” model of research utilization emphasizes more subtle, indirect, and circuitous applications by which, for example, generalized evidence from multiple studies (e.g., mental health problems are a deterrent to welfare reform; the reliability of eyewitness testimony is highly situation specific) or concepts derived from research on human development (e.g., successful aging, social capital) shape policymakers’ views about issues that warrant their attention and their instincts about how best to address them. Examples of both direct and indirect uses are plentiful, and each can be—and has been—used to promote, delay, or prevent action on a policy issue.

As with virtually all factors that contribute to public policy, research is most likely to play a role when its findings coincide with constituency interests, prevailing values, and other important influences. Case studies of individuals in various policy roles have revealed that the timeliness and relevance of the findings to an active policy debate are prerequisites for use. The perceived quality of the research and its “fit” with the users’  prior  perceptions  and  values  foster  trust  in the research and thus enhance its potential for utilization. Its application is then affected by the extent to which the presentation of the research articulates possibilities for action or, at a minimum, studies variables that policymakers can manipulate (e.g., maternal education as distinct from maternal warmth) as well as by its potential to raise new issues for consideration or new perspectives on more long-standing issues.

The circumstances that prevail when research is introduced into the process are also important. Policymakers are more likely to turn to research evidence when confronted with an unfamiliar issue on which they have not formed an opinion (e.g., acquired immunodeficiency syndrome [AIDS] in the 1980s, child witness testimony in the 1980s and 1990s), dealing with a highly contentious policy for which a “sympathetic” empirical finding might tip the balance of opinion or discredit the opponents’ arguments (e.g., welfare or health care reform, immigration policy, discrimination law), or seeking to delay action by asserting that research is inconclusive or insufficient to justify policy intervention. These circumstances challenge researchers to maintain credibility in the scientific and policy arenas by advocating the appropriate  use  of  their  findings  while  articulating  the limits of their data.

It is now recognized that the relation between science and policy is characterized by interdependence and mutual interests. The exchange brings vital funding for training and research on human development, policies that facilitate empirical inquiry, public relevance, and opportunities for social as well as scientific impact. The ongoing challenge is one of understanding differences between these two enterprises, acknowledging the constraints and opportunities that confront those who operate within them, and constructing an effective working relationship in the service of making a difference in the lives of those we study.


  1. Birkland, T. A. (2001). An introduction to the policy process: Theories, concepts, and models of public policy making. Armonk, NY: ME
  2. Bottoms, B. L., Kovera, M. B., & McAuliffe, B. D. (Eds.). (2002). Children, social science, and the law. New York: Cambridge University
  3. Erickson, R. J., & Simon, R. J. (1998). The use of social science data in Supreme Court decisions. Urbana, IL: University of Chicago
  4. Featherman, D. , & Vinovskis, M. A. (Eds.). (2001). Social science and policy-making: A search for relevance in the twentieth century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  5. Hayes,  D.  (Ed.).  (1982).  Making  policies  for  children: A study of the federal process. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  6. Levine, , & Wallach, L. (2002). Psychological problems, social issues, and law. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  7. Lorion, P., Iscoe, I., DeLeon, P. H., & VandenBos, G. R. (1996). Psychology and public policy: Balancing public service and professional need. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  8. Lynn, E. (Ed.). (1978). Knowledge and policy: The uncertain connection: Vol. 5. Study project on social research and development. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.
  9. Zigler, E. G., & Hall, N. W. (2000). Child development and social policy: Theory and applications. Boston: McGrawHill.