Abstract Background In both the US and Japan, the patient isolation policy for leprosy /Hansen's disease (HD) was preserved along with the isolation facilities, long after it had been proven to be scientifically unnecessary. This delayed policy termination caused a deprivation of civil liberties of the involuntarily confined patients, the fostering of social stigmas attached to the disease, and an inefficient use of health resources. This article seeks to elucidate the political process which hindered timely policy changes congruent with scientific advances. Methods Examination of historical materials, supplemented by personal interviews. The role that science played in the process of policy making was scrutinized with particular reference to the Garbage Can model. Results From the vantage of history, science remained instrumental in all period in the sense that it was not the primary objective for which policy change was discussed or intended, nor was it the principal driving force for policy change. When the argument arose, scientific arguments were employed to justify the patient isolation policy. However, in the early post-WWII period, issues were foregrounded and agendas were set as the inadvertent result of administrative reforms. Subsequently, scientific developments were more or less ignored due to concern about adverse policy outcomes. Finally, in the 1980s and 1990s, scientific arguments were used instrumentally to argue against isolation and for the termination of residential care. Conclusion Contrary to public expectations, health policy is not always rational and scientifically justified. In the process of policy making, the role of science can be limited and instrumental. Policy change may require the opening of policy windows, as a result of convergence of the problem, policy, and political streams, by effective exercise of leadership. Scientists and policymakers should be attentive enough to the political context of policies.