Learning from think tanks?

31 October 2011

The LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog is a source of very interesting ideas. A recent post by Professor Judy Sebba from the University of Sussex considers why research is not used enough by policymakers.

She asks:

Why then have several studies demonstrated that senior civil servants and politicians rank academic research bottom of the sources that they consult in the policy-making process?

There are many reasons why academic research is not regarded as fit-for-purpose by policy-makers. Typically these include:

  • its failure to produce clear outcomes without caveats;
  • reluctance of researchers to go one step further and identify policy implications (which many researchers do not see as their role);
  • findings communicated in ways that are not accessible or meaningful to the non-specialist (most policy-makers are non-specialists in the English civil service in which is it customary to frequently change roles and departments).

Short, non-jargonised briefings are not the strength of academics. Lengthy technical papers with extensive methodological and sometimes theoretical details are not of interest or use to policy-makers. Most of all, academic research rarely produces the answers just when policies are being developed or changed – the timing of research and policy-making are commonly out of sync.

All of these factors have been thoroughly documented by the work by the RAPID programme in ODI but they do not account for the simple fact that policymaking is not just about doing what the evidence says. Often, the argument for evidence based policymaking ignores other aspects of policymaking that cannot be removed from the process.

Policy choices are not simply technical cost-benefit decisions. Because they involve the allocation of limited public resources they are in essence political choices. Often then ethical considerations, interpretations of nature of justice or fairness, and political responsibilities are far more important than technical recommendations.

These ‘reasons’ also place the blame on researchers and seem to excuse policymakers altogether. I have argued that academics (and think tanks, sometimes) must draw a line below which they will not go. If policymakers do not ‘get’ the complexity of a social problem then rather than attempting to digest it for them and offer a few bullet points, we ought to demand better policymakers.

Frances Cleaver has written a fantastic paper about this for water governance.

So, yes, by all means, academics must work with think tanks but not to see their messages diluted or distilled. Collaboration between academics and think tanks should enhance their power to communicate complex ideas and develop the capacity of the new generations of policymakers to understand and deal with complexity.