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Posts tagged ‘science’

The onthinktanks interview: Julia Day and Adrian Ely, Impact, Communication and Engagement Managers at the STEPS Centre

Julia Day and Adrian Ely pull back the curtain on their New Manifesto Project and how it was used to communicate highly technical research approaches on the social dimensions of science and technology.

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Paradox of Hoaxes: How Errors Persist, Even When Corrected

Here is an interesting challenge that think tanks face on a regular basis -a challenge often created by other think tanks and linked to the fact that think tanks CAN get it wrong. In Paradox of Hoaxes: How Errors Persist, Even When CorrectedSamuel Arbesman argues that:

Despite our unprecedented ability to rapidly learn new things and crowdfix mistakes, Knowledge and its sinister twin Error continue to propagate in complex and intriguing ways.

Even after an error has been corrected (false information has been updated, a flawed theory has been refuted, or  lie has been caught and shamed) it has a high chance of making a comeback. Like one of those joke candles of our youth.

What caught my attention in this article is Arbesman’s excitement. The world of think tanks is full of talk about evidence based policy and grand programmes based on single studies, a few months’ worth of research, and one or two pilots at most. Donors often fund think tanks in developing countries avoiding overlap: one focusing on health, another on growth, another on education, etc. But as Arbesman points out:

It would be so convenient and predictable if all knowledge stood the test of time. But if that were the measure of being a scientist, then no one would be a scientist. No one would explore or write or even be willing to read about our latest (even if recapitulated or inaccurate) findings. Of course, we still have to be scrupulous; but the good news is that while knowledge is fickle and changing, the way it changes does obey some rules and regularities. There is a method to the madness.

So we should all keep in mind what a former professor of mine said after lecturing his classes on a certain scientific topic on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, he read a paper that was published and that invalidated the lecture. On Thursday, he went into class and told his students, “Remember what I told you on Tuesday? It’s wrong. And if that worries you, you need to get out of science.”

Here then is a role for think tanks. As they pursue certain policy decisions they must also ensure that their ideas are sound (technically, politically ethically, etc.). The often heard comment that ‘all the research has been done’ should be grounds for concern about the intellectual robustness of the organisation. Specially in the field of social sciences where things can’t ever be 100% certain.

Explaining controversial issues to the media and to the public: a practical guide.

Robert Ward has published a quick practical guide (in Spanish) on the Science and Development Network (SciDev.Net) on how academics and scientists can explain controversial issues to the media and to the public. Every so often research findings may cause controversy regarding their implications, especially when they imply having to change people’s behaviours, and thus researchers must know how to explain these findings with clarity, honesty, and ease.

The first step is to identify beforehand what interests the public and the media, so it is useful to anticipate the questions that they will have. These two audiences are usually most interested in the implications that the research in question will have on the lives of the public. If this is not entirely clear to academics or scientists, they should to ask other specialists such as public policy makers, who may have more experience regarding the potential impact that the research findings could have on the public (if it were to be implemented). If the implications have not been considered, it is best to admit to this rather than speculate.

Researchers must also practice how to speak about the controversial issue with the public and the media. Technical language should be left aside. Conflicts must be acknowledged and their existence thoroughly explained, even if the researcher is trapped in a potential conflict of interest.

A journalist that senses that a scientist is not being completely honest about a controversy will usually feel compelled to further investigate, and may cause dispute among those who have a stake on the consequences of the research findings.

Questions regarding security and risk are of particular importance. Sometimes, researchers who do not want to compromise themselves with these types of questions cause controversy without meaning to. If qualified to evaluate risk, for instance, researchers should try to do so going beyond a simple yes or no answer. However, if they are not, they should say so and suggest somebody who is capable.

Finally, it is important to practice discussing issues that may cause debate or polarization. Researchers should consult with communications professionals, but must always be sure that whatever is presented to the press is expressed in a way that is not inexact or deceitful.

Furthermore, we should not forget that the media has its own agenda; it is not a passive actor waiting to be ‘used’ (researchers are unlikely to ever be able to ‘use’ the media). For example, Chile’s El Mercurio developed a strategy to influence the Chilean government that any researchers wanting to work with the newspaper would have taken into account.

More manuals and guides can be found here.

Add salt to your communications strategy

Think tanks and research programmes are increasingly turning to the web as a channel of communication. They are setting up blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and signing up to as many social networks as they can in the hopes of reaching hundreds or thousands of readers. But how likely is it that their followers will be in the thousands rather than the hundreds?

For VoxEU, an initiative of CEPR, hundreds of thousands is more accurate. Some of its posts have been read well over 500,000 times.  But VoxEU is the exception to the rule. To begin with, it is an economics opinion site and economists are everywhere and always keen to read about economics; furthermore, even non-economists like to read about economics; it was launched right at the time of the financial crisis; and some of its contributors are columnists for mayor publications who help to keep up the site’s popularity.

But what chance does a biologist or a food safety expert have of consistently getting more than a few hundred web hits on their personal or organizational blogs? Not much.

The same goes for most social scientists. Research on migration, culture, livestock, sustainable development, local economic development, and other such issues can be, let’s face it, rather boring for the general public. And making it ‘sexier’ for mass consumption is probably not the best use of a researcher’s work or time.

Enter The Salt. The Salt is a food blog at the National Public Radio launched in september 2011 that, according to Host and Reporter Eliza Barclay, seeks to:

connect the dots between issues like food safety, the livestock industry, the meat labels in the grocery store, and the hamburger you actually eat.

Blogs like The Salt may offer an opportunity for scientists, veterinarians, economists, sociologists, and many other hard-nosed researchers to get their research out there and into the public eye.

The Salt is not a typical food blog. Its reporters generally do not write about trendy new restaurants or foods. Instead it reports on the political economy of what we eat. And because it is in effect a media outlet it tries to be interesting, accessible, and has the potential to reach millions.

The Salt’s approach works well for other concerns of the international development community -and of many think tanks: Pro-poor tourism, for example, could be a great topic to tackle. Not a travel blog but a blog about the political economy of travel that makes use of research on value chains, the roles of indigenous communities, the sustainability of use of resources, security, climate change, taxation, trade in services, etc. Rural development could consider blogs on global trends such as coffee or or cacao as ways to capture people’s attention. I went to London’s Coffee Festival last month and there were opportunities to discuss the science, politics, economics, and social dimension of coffee at every corner. But all brought tot life by the baristas demonstrations and the smells and tastes of coffee.

DFID and the Gates Foundation fund a great deal of research on health. But as hard as they try, single organisations or programmes will always struggle to get beyond their immediate professional networks (with the exception of maybe one or two articles in the press). But what if all this health research found an outlet in a sort of Health Vox or a Health Salt? Health is an increasingly compelling issue across the world and particularly for middle classes in the developing world: healthy living is a perfect hook into the realities of health and health services in many developing countries and a blog that tackles these is likely to capture the attention of a growing audience.

A word of warning, though: The Salt and VoxEU work because they are focused on the content and not on the cause. Their mission is to inform and not to promote any one position or view. Reporters at The Salt are free to seek out and develop their own stories, which are driven by a number of factors. According to Barclay:

We find stories on other blogs, other media outlets, news events, Twitter, and also our own intellectual musings. My bacon post (which I did for our health blog before The Salt existed) is a good example of that. University communications people pitch us ideas from new academic research or sometimes they repackage old stuff… we cover some of that, especially new health and science findings related to food, health, nutrition, agriculture, etc.

The relationship between academia and journalists is important for this to work. And this is further facilitated by the specialisation of the journalists. Eliza Barclay, for example, has an undergraduate degree in science and a master’s in  science journalism. She and her colleagues at The Salt are all part of the NPR’s Science Desk. As a consequence, The Salt blog is more science-based than other food blogs. This makes it distinct and allows it to dive in and cover a lot of issues that are probably missed by others.

When thinking of how to communicate their work think tanks and programmes ought to consider if media such as these already exist. If they don’t why not help develop them or even rebrand their blogs along those lines?

Influencing policy and practice: the long and complex road

I think it is well known by all by now that influencing policy and practice cannot be assumed to be a linear and predictable affair. Initiatives that plan for influence within a few months or a year (or even longer) are, it has to be said, stretching the truth a bit too far.

Here is an interesting example of how change happens –but not necessarily in a way that can be planned, logframed, and measured.

Allison Aubrey and Eliza Barclay wrote a short article for NPR’s food blog on the history of changes public and private policies towards the use of trans fats in food (in the United States). They report on a study that shows that:

the amount of trans-fatty acids in some Americans decreased significantly — 58 percent among white adults between 2000 and 2009. Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who published their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association, say that is “substantial progress.”

The history of trans fats is interesting because it points at a number of elements of the evidence informed or based policy debate. First of all, trans fats were initially promoted as an evidence-based alternative to lard, in the 1980s. So we should be conscious of the fact that there are other views and these can also be backed up by evidence and science.

Science caught-up with the new invention and in the 1990s some health activists started to use new finding to denounce it. However, it took until 2006 for the government to demand manufacturers to change their behaviour but only in terms of labelling the use of trans fats –not prohibiting it. This came later. Change happens slowly in part because science is not one. When advocates refer to science they may try to convince us that all scientists agree but this is hardy ever the case. And people do not always keep up with all the latest developments in science. Does anyone remember if broccoli causes cancer -or is it in fact good for you?

Another important point to note is that the story is not over. There are policies and new practices on the issue that this has not eliminated trans fats. They are still used.

So three decades of campaigning, research, policy change and new practices have brought forth a number of changes. And a number of players have been involved: scientists (inventing, promoting, and rejecting trans fats), advocates, policymakers, corporations, restaurants, super markets, nutritionists and other opinion makers and educators, the general public, etc.

The true value of science?

Ryan Meyer has published an article Nature that considers the true value of US climate science that is particularly relevant to the contribution that think tanks can make. It starts with a familiar tone for many think tanks:

they all argue that their research will make the world a better place.

Soon, however they find that despite the promises this is not an exact science:

Take the US$3-billion Human Genome Project and the breathless promises of cures and treatments that it would bring. In fact, the benefits have been modest because solving societal problems is a lot more complicated and difficult than generating new knowledge.

I see this all the time (and saw it more a year ago). Many think tanks promise impact and writing it down in their contracts with the funders. These are the Theories of Change that underpin the logframes they sig-up to. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with promising policy outcomes. All of these initiative make the wrong assumption that more evidence leads to better informed decisions. Or that there is a path from evidence to policy that can be defined ex-ante. I am well aware that as a researcher this is well beyond my direct influence. Change depends on others.

Repeated studies have shown that making information useful demands engagement with those who will use it. This is about more than just communicating science effectively. It is about responsive scientists and science institutions

But of course, what funder would agree to a proposal that says ‘we will try, but cannot guarantee anything’ -even if it is being honest? In this world of value for money, can we be honest about the limits of science and still get public support? Well, apparently there is a way, according to Meyer:

In its 2012 report, the US Global Change Research Program  (USGCRP) has expressed a more nuanced and humble account of the role of science in society’s responses to climate change.

For a US$30 billion programme, it’s strategy says some daring things:

For example, the draft plan provocatively states: “scientific knowledge is only one part of a much broader process. Information may be scientifically relevant without being decision relevant.”

This example presents nothing new in terms of approach. This blog and other programmes have been advocating for this for quite some time. But it is interesting that such a large public programme, and a hard sciences one in fact, that has taken this decision. It would be great if other funders accepted this and recognised the value of research with or without influence.

Why do I say this? I think that we have failed to see that there are really no necessary links between all research, communicating ideas, and all aspects of policymaking. We have assumed that there is a continuum between these. This exists in some cases but in others this is just not what we find. Just as there is research that is clearly linked to decision making, there is research that isn’t. And this research is no less important.

In some cases, there is research that needs to be de-linked from its communication or from policymaking. Others, not researchers themselves, can take on these roles. We need to recognise this and value these different elements of the system. Each is important for its own sake: academia, the media, and the civil service, for example. The links between them are welcome but not mandatory.

Looking for evidence in political debates: the case of GMOs in Zambia

I have mentioned the work by Emma Broadbent a few times in this blog. She is conducting a series of cases for the Evidence based Policy in Development Network that explore the contribution of research based evidence to the development of political debates in Africa. Zambia Analysis has published a synthesis of the case she wrote for the GMO debate in Zambia. (Zambia Analysis, by the way, is an interesting initiative. It is an effort to improve the policy debate in Zambia and a perfect opportunity create a new demand for think tanks’ research -I hope donors are paying attention.)

The watershed moment for Zambia’s position on GMOs came in 2002 when, faced with food shortages and widespread starvation, the government chose to reject 35,000 tonnes of food aid from the US because it included GMO maize. The move was starkly criticised by the WFP, FAO and USAID on stark grounds that it endangered the lives of starving people and was based on a lack of evidence.

But was it? In fact, the account of the GMO debate in Zambia shows that evidence was used by both sides (for and against).

The ban was not made without advice and deliberation. The decision to go beyond banning the aid shipment and ban all GMO imports came after intense debate and serious attempts to weigh up existing knowledge. After a number of research institutes advised the government against accepting GM maize, a team of Zambian scientists and civil society representatives was sent on a US-funded international study tour and concluded that GMOs could be a health hazard.

The full article is on page 26:

View this document on Scribd

The limits of the scientific method and the need to merge science and innovation

After a visit to CIGI to discuss the value of think tanks I blogged about Roger Martin’s presentation and idea of the ‘logical leap of the mind’. He has published an article on the issue of the limits of the scientific method in economics and the world that is a must-read for anyone advocating for ‘evidence based policy’ or the adoption of impact evaluations and randomised control trials as the gold standards of decision making.

Martin beings by describing the confident exposition of an economist’s explanations of the current economic crisis. The same economist who had mistakenly predicted the crisis a few months prior. He argues that at the core of the problem with many of the current initiatives to make policymaking a technocratic affair is the inappropriate application of the Aristotelean scientific method:

The roots of the problem can be traced right back to Aristotle, the father of modern science, who around 400 B.C. laid down the first formal conception of cause and effect.

But … as much as Aristotle was a proponent of his scientific logic, in the best scientific tradition, he established boundary conditions for his theory.  It was for the part of the world in which things could not be other than they are. An oak tree is an oak tree and cannot be something else.  For this world, Aristotle laid out the seminal scientific method and argued that it was the optimal way for understanding that part of the world.

… he also cautioned that there is another part of the world that can be other than it is, and there was another method that needed to be used to understand it. The scientific method would be wholly inappropriate.

That part of the world consists of people – of relationships, of interactions, of exchanges.  In this part of the world, relationships can be good, bad or indifferent; close, distant or sporadic.  They change – they can be other than they currently are. For this part of the world, Aristotle said that the method used to develop our understanding and to shape this world is rhetoric; dialogue between parties that builds understanding that actually shapes and alters this part of the world.

At the CIGI meeting Roger Martin argued that to make a difference, think tanks must make sure that they understand this and pay sufficient attention to creating new ideas (these logical leaps of the mind) -and warned against the current practice of applying science to the vast track of the world where things can be other than they are:

Science advances our knowledge of the world in which things cannot be other than they are.  But the modern practice of applying science to the vast tract of the world where things can be other than they are is unhelpful, as demonstrated by the unreflective economist. Extrapolating the future to be a straight-line projection of the past is neither accurate, nor is it helpful in creating better understanding and newer ideas.

As much as it is helpful to the world to create, test and prove out novel new hypotheses about things that cannot be other than they are, I would argue it is more critical to the world to create novel new hypotheses for things that can be other than they are – like economic growth, environmental sustainability, and peace and security.

To do so, we have to break the iron grip of science on the part of our world that for which mere extrapolation of the past is ineffectual, for which the creation of a better future must be the goal.

The idea of the logical leap comes from Charles Sanders Peirce who:

… concluded that no new idea was ever derived from the analysis of the past using inductive and deductive logic – the two forms of logic our modern scientific method utilize.

However, deductive and inductive logical analyses aren’t so hot for things that can be other than they are – like economy for example.  These things change constantly due to the interactions of the people and organizations. The fall of 2008 wasn’t an extrapolation of the past – it was discontinuous with the past.

The obvious implication of this is that if think tanks are being Peircian they would be asking more fundamental questions about the persisting and new problems faced by the world. They would not be looking at hard data about what has happened to lead them forward, but rather be looking for alternative explanations.

In Chile, the think tanks that appeared after the Pinochet coup in 1973 began their work by looking at the causes of the breakdown of democracy in a attempt to understand what had happened. Their theories and what they knew of Chilean politics and society could not explain it. Had they now focused on this they would have not been able to adapt and find solutions to what was, for Chile, an unimaginable situation.

Rather than forgetting entirely that their theories were demonstrated to be totally lacking, and then going on to analyze some more and predict more based on those theories, they would have created a new hypothesis to explain what just happened.  This would be what Peirce evocatively called ‘a logical leap of the mind’ and ‘an inference to the best explanation.’

That is the merger of science and innovation.  It is what Peirce called ‘abductive logic’.  It is the formation of a new hypothesis.

And what do you do with an idea in the absence of data to prove it? You discuss it: you dialogue.

Martin does not argue that there is no place for deductive or inductive logic in the work of policymaking and think tanks:

Rather, I am arguing that we need to reign in faux science, which is appropriate only for understanding things that cannot be other than they are, using the tools of deductive and inductive logic.  And we need to release the energy of a broader conception of science and innovation that helps us to shape those aspects of our world that can be other than they are, using abductive logic.  It won’t always be clear in advance which is which, but it is important that we not default reflexively to analysis rather than innovation.

Can think tanks make a difference? only if they are capable of logical leaps of the mind

CIGI celebrated its 10th anniversary with an event -not intended to showcase its successes or talk about the business of global governance- by reflecting on the role they play in Canada, and more generally, in the world. They invited a bunch of people to their offices (more on this -they are stunning) in Waterloo, Canada, for a day of discussion and fun (more on this, too).

First of all, the CIGI campus is enviable. CIGI’s offices have been built on top (and around) an old distillery (The empty barrels welcome you as you enter the building. It is just stunning). The design, according to the architects, reinterprets traditional colleges of Oxford and Cambridge with their centuries-old landscaped courtyards, in a contemporary glass, brick and stone building that recalls the industrial heritage buildings that formerly occupied the site.

At the heart of the campus is a courtyard: CIGI to one side, the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA) to another, and a new teaching wing to the other. Across the road is the new Perimeter Centre (designed by Stephen Hawkings). Balsillie, by the way, is Jim Balsillie, one half of Research in Motion (of Balckberry fame). He is the engine behind CIGI. The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is funded by his RIM partner Mike Lazaridis.

What a brilliant combination, if you ask me. Industry and academia working together.

The event started with a brilliant key-note speech by Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management. Roger talked about what he called the paradox of think tanks: The reason why think tanks are ever more important is that the world is changing into a place where think tanks are becoming less relevant.

The world, he argued, is heading in a ‘scientific direction’ that prioritises (or gives sole right to) inductive or deductive logic in policymaking. However, he argued, new ideas never come from this type of logic (Aristotle warned about applied it to the world where things can often be other than they are -here, he said, we need rhetoric). Instead, new ideas come from abductive logic or “a logical leap of the mind”.

The world we live in today however seems to want proof for everything. New ideas are not challenged on the ideas but on their evidence. I remember the fanfare around Dambisa Moyo’s book a few years ago: all the criticisms (or most) were on her evidence (or lack of). But few engaged with her proposition: that African countries are addicted to Aid and that something must be done about it.

Think tanks, in his view, must make sure that they are places that not only allow and accept abductive logic but in fact make it central to their work. Abductive logic has a huge effect on how think tanks work. It is not just about coming up with new ideas but what one does with them. And what one does with them is embark in dialogue. One cannot proof or disproof these new ideas by looking back at data -this assumes that what happened in the past will continue to happen in the future (so what is new with that?) but only by bringing these ideas to life through dialogue and action.

This was a great start to the day and a very interesting conversation ensued. Do think tanks (and researchers) often hide behind ‘evidence’ and ‘science’ instead of saying what they actually believe in? (yes) I science being over stretched? (scientific method can, sometimes, tell us what has happened and why but cannot -and is not supposed to- tell us what to do) Can think tanks scape ideology? (no, but they should be able to shift as the world changes)What should we do? (we should strive to make things rightER).

Then there was a panel on policy innovation in the age of social media. Much of what was discussed resonates with the work that Nick Scott has been doing at ODI. My view is that we are still limiting the discussion by our own limited understanding of ‘social media’. Often the presentations and questions went down the path of commenting on the relevance and usefulness of Twitter, Facebook, etc. The digital world is much broader and these are JUST tools. What matters is how we navigate through it -and not whether we can try to manage it (we cannot).

Chad Gaffield had some interesting points when he identified three conceptual changes in this new world: public discussion in real time, not defined by geopolitical borders, and creating new divides.

Alexandra Samuel, Director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University, provided a gem of an idea: Social media has been most successful not  when it set out to change a policy but instead it developed to circumvent policy. Of course! Creative Commons is not an attempt to influence copy-right but rather to do without it. Political, economics, art, etc. blogging is not a way into a mainstream media column, it is saying, ‘I do not need you”. Policy change is a thing of the past.

Alexandra wrote a post right after : 6 questions about the impact of social media on think tanks.

The next session was, unfortunately, the session I was involved in and I did not take notes. The question to the panel was whether governments care more about politics than policies. I think we all agreed that they do -although I argued that this is not necessarily a bad thing (and I for one do not want my governments thinking that they can govern over us as if we were automatons). The thing is that evidence cannot be the only thing that matters in policymaking. (Roger Martin said it better.)

To bring politics and politics (ideology and science) closer together we need to stop separating them -as if it was possible to leave our values at the door- and recognise that not one single player can do this. We need to invest in ALL institutions of democracy (political parties, the media, universities, the private sector, the state, etc.) and in the people who lead and staff them. Such is the complexity of finding the right balance between ideology and evidence that this cannot be planned in advance. We must learn to rely in smart and commitment people and lots and lots of opportunities for learning.

The last panel of the day (Policy influence -who has it and how to get it) was won over by Tiffany Jenkins of the Institute of Ideas (of Battle of Ideas fame) who said that their objective was NOT influence. A proper post on her presentation will come soon, I promise, but in the mean time: she argued that we live in depoliticised times where big ideas are off the agenda and where policymakers just as for ‘technocratic’ solutions to very specific problems (I think many think tanks having to answer to ToRs that start with “Demonstrate that”  will be able to relate) and where influence, as a consequence, is easy. Of course it is: if the policymakers ask for the answer and you give it then how difficult can it be.

In the absence of political authority, she said, science has been brought in and overstretched (same argument as Roger Martin’s). It is now used as a weapon and a substitute for political debate.

Patricio Meller, from CIEPLAN, talked about think tanks in Latin America. He presented an argument to use in leveraging more domestic funds for think tanks in the region. The experience of think tanks in Chile is worth looking into. Jeffrey Puryear’s book: Thinking Politics is a must read.

It is worth mentioning that other leading minds in the world of think tanks were present: Lawrence McDonald, Vice President of Communications and Policy Outreach at the Center for Global Development, being one. Lawrence is a rare thinktanker: he does just ‘do it’ he also thinks about what and why he does it: Learning While Doing: A 12-Step Program for Policy Change.

And so the day went. We then had a cocktail in the CIGI campus and dinner. Steve Patterson provided some really good comedy during the dinner.

There was an interesting twitter discussion going on during the event in case you’d like to follow it.

Mexico’s public think tanks’ network: support the system

A few months ago I had a discussion with a colleague about how to support research and policymaking in a country without having to pick ‘winners’ -i.e. funding a particular think tank. Treating think tanks as part of a broader system and funding the system would be one way. And a year ago in a TEDx event in Peru I argued for more funding for economic and social research think tanks along side the support that technology research is already receiving there.

Mexico, a country often dismissed as a developing country (or fragile state in some circles) has a lot to share with the world. If you are reading this in a university in the U.S. or in Europe, take a few minutes to think of all the Mexicans you know: I bet you won’t have trouble thinking of a few. Ask them where they get their funding from: I bet most will say that they get it from the state.

Well, Mexico’s National Science and Technology Council (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia) has developed a network of 27 public research institutions working on three large areas:

10 in the exact and natural sciences, 8 in the social sciences and humanities, 8 focus on technological development and innovation, and one offers post-graduate funding.

The network is decentralised to ensure that all regions benefit from the centres’ efforts and they are expected to work together to maximise the impact of their research: natural sciences and humanities coming together to facilitated innovations in public policy and the development of new products and services, for example.

But the centres are also the engine room of current and future generations of PhDs and experts in Mexico. They have been given a broad mandateto undertake research, disseminate knowledge, generate and develop innovations, and develop new generations of researchers to ensure the sustainability of the system. There is plenty of information about this -and the centres in this document outlining the system of mexican public research centres.

Now, Mexican value for research is not new. The literature recognises the role of technocracy in Mexican policymaking (and politics) and the factors that has driven this growth. The rise of experts’ power in policymaking has been explained for the case of Mexico (Camp, 1998, p. 197) as a consequence of:

  1. The influence of formal knowledge in Mexico’s political culture, especially the demand for higher education among their political leaders;
  2. The institutionalisation of political leadership, specifically the role of the executive branch and the links between the bureaucracy and the academic community. The larger and more professionalised the more important the role of technocrats in it.
  3. The impact of the presidential system in the polity. In the United Kingdom and other parliamentary systems, ministers come from the elected parliament, where the civil service provides the technocratic body of the state. In presidential systems, rather than relying on congress to be the training ground for ministers (technocratic leaders, after all), the executive takes over legislative roles from parliament and becomes an initiator of policy and thus demands new levels of experts.
  4. The supremacy of civilian over military political leadership –this is almost unique in Mexico where technocrats are identified with civilians –in other Latin American countries it is possible to reserve some areas for military technocrats.
  5. The growth and prestige of professionalism in all facets of society, notably in public life.
  6. The demand for economic skills to administer and solve complex public policy issues.
  7. The long term evolution of a pragmatic versus an ideological leadership
  8. The degree and style of competition between national and provincial politicians.
  9. The increasing influence of foreign ideologies and socializing experiences. In fact, Camp wrote that the political elite in Mexico came from fewer than two dozen, especially Ivy League, universities.

And so if the website for the centres’ system is correct, the network is trying to democratise this expertise, expanding it to other fields and ensuring that the benefits of knowledge are felt beyond the usual learned communities that make up the technocratic policy elites of many countries.

I know that some donors working in the least developed countries of the world find it rather uncool to learn from Latin America but, maybe, sometimes, its worth having a look. I am sure this system has its own problems but the idea -and what it aims to achieve should at least inspire curiosity.


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