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Philosophy overview

Leading philosopher of science Professor Nancy Cartwright is influencing change to improve the prediction and evaluation of policy effectiveness through her pioneering research on evidence and causal inference.

Context and user centric approach

For those who take a systematic evidence-based approach to decision-making, the usual approach is to focus on the policy or intervention itself, to see to what extent it has worked where it has been implemented, generally assessing this in a randomised controlled trial.

Cartwright’s research is focused instead on the context into which the policy is set and how that context impacts upon people and upon what can be accomplished by an intervention.

Professor Cartwright has therefore called for a shift from intervention-centred thinking to a more context-centred approach that allows the use of additional methods and different kinds of information in policy deliberation.

Her work has benefited and influenced thinking about policy production and evaluation within the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK as well as the US Department of Education’s What Works Clearing House.

Influencing policy change across different sectors

Professor Cartwright’s work on middle-range theory — which lays out the mechanisms by which each step in the process from intervention to outcome is supposed to produce the next step and explains what it takes for those mechanisms to operate properly — has directly influenced change in the Centre of Excellence for Development Impact and Learning (CEDIL), a centre sponsored by the Department for International Development (DFID).

This has led CEDIL to commission a number of practical studies using middle-range theory in the design and evaluation of development projects around the world.

Her research has also helped the Academy of Medical Sciences to improve thinking about how to evaluate the efficacy of medical interventions.

Additionally, her work on evidence and evaluation of policy has worked with that of others to encourage the Educational Endowment Foundation to recognise a far wider range of evidence as relevant to understanding where and for whom different educational practices will work.

An accomplished philosopher

Cartwright has been awarded the city of Barcelona Hypatia award for outstanding contributions to science, in the area of social science and humanities.

She’s also won two of the most prestigious lifetime-achievement philosophy prizes: the 2017 Lebowitz Prize for philosophical achievement and contribution from the American Philosophical Association and the 2018 Hempel Award from the Philosophy of Science Association.

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