Never mind the gap: on how there is no gap between research and policy and on a new theory (Part 1 of 3)

4 July 2011

This is the first of three posts that I hope to publish over the next couple weeks. Together, they make up an essay I started to write while at ODI last year and that I have now decided to get back to. If you have any comments, do please send them my way -directly or commenting below. The key question I want to answer in this first post: Is there a gap between research and policy that needs to be bridged?

The Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme has, for the last eight years or so, studied and promoted the role of research based evidence in policy processes. The underlying premise of the programme, and its many competitors and collaborators, has been the need to bridge the gap between research and policy. This, in turn, is based on the assumption that there is a gap that needs to be bridged.

It is this assumption that I want to challenge; and, by doing so I hope to reformulate the direction of those working in this field.

The space in the middle is full

In 2009 I edited a book focusing on the relationships between think tanks and political parties in Latin America. The cases studied in the book (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile) provided clear evidence that a number of networks, organisations and actors operate in the space between research and policymaking. In Peru, for example, technocratic networks were found to bring together researchers and policymakers focusing their attention on long and medium term policy discussions around particular issues. One of the most interesting cases is the Macroeconomic Network, which has been credited with promoting a stable macroeconomic policy in Peru for nearly two decades. This network, like others, emerged out of a systemic lack of trust (and reputation risk) between political parties and research centres that led to an almost absence of formal institutional relations between these two groups throughout the 1980s and 90s. The members of these networks (who come from academia, consultancies, the private sector, the public sector, political parties, etc.), however, are free to participate in policy discussions with their peers –across centres, across parties, an across ideological camps.

In Chile and Colombia, which benefit from more stable political systems, internal political party think tanks are were found to be more common. Like in the U.S. and in Europe, political parties in the more politically mature Latin American democracies have developed their own research capacities or have negotiated formal institutional relations with research centres. Internal think tanks are also found in Uruguay and Argentina.

Where formal internal think tanks do not exist (for different reasons, including legal ones), it is still possible to find stable yet informal relations: in Peru, the Instituto de Gobierno is closely linked to APRA, in Ecuador, ILDIS and the Democracia Cristiana party, in the United Kingdom, IPPR was closely linked to the Labour government, and in the U.S., the Heritage Foundation has obvious links to the Republican Party.

Globally there are also a many public think tanks: DIE is the German Government’s international development think tank; and in Vietnam and China, line ministries have their own internal research centres or think tanks. This group could also includes regulatory bodies, parliamentary commissions, scientific advisors, etc. Even the UN has its own; and some, like the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) and UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre  are known for their high academic and policy relevant standards. The World Bank and DFID, too, have enviable research and policy teams; at least in terms of their size and budget. And when they cannot manage to do it in-house they work closely with think tanks, academics, and consultants to answer urgent and more important (although not as often as would be hoped) policy questions.

And this is before considering other far more important but often forgotten boundary workers (to borrow a concept from Robert Hoppe): unions, specialised and general media, professional associations, corporate research centres, consultancies, political parties themselves, public intellectuals, presidential or congressional commissions, consultation spaces, etc.

In other words, both at the national and the international levels, the space between research and policy is full: with academics, experts, policymakers and politicians who belong to informal and formal policy networks; with think tanks or research centres associated to policy actors; with researchers and research centres that operate within the policymaking boundaries of parties, governments and international organisations; and with a host of other organisations and individuals with equal right to participate in pursuit of their own private or public interests.

This is not just a one-off case or a coincidence

The cases from the Latin American study also showed that both communities are so tightly interconnected that it would be impossible, in some cases, to talk about one without the other. Furthermore, the relationships described above, that populate the space that has been assumed empty (and therefore in need of a bridge), are not new but part of a long shared history.

Think Tanks have often mistakenly been described in the literature as independent and apolitical. This is based on the legal terms used to define them in more developed countries. However, the work on political parties and think tanks in Latin America, and on the relationship between think tanks and politics in Asia, for example, has provided us with ample of evidence on the foundational and historical links that exist between the policy and research communities.

This relationship, of course, is not limited to the developing world. The United States, the Mecca of think tanks, provides one of the clearest histories of this historical co-evolution. According to Andrew Rich’s study of experts in the U.S. politics the original think tanks were set up in the early 1900s by philanthropists who believed in the role of science in progressive policymaking; later, think tanks set up after the Wall Street crash were founded by philanthropists and progressive policymakers interested in the promotion of policy solutions to prevent social unrest and respond to the crisis; with the Second World War and the Cold War underway, the art of government in a globalised world became more complex and the demand for more technical advice to deal with it led to the formation of foreign policy and defence think tanks founded by ideologically motivated donors; and later in the 20th Century (and in the early 21st Century) think tanks have been founded by political leaders and players with explicit connections to political parties and the pursuit of power.

In a recent book, The Argument, Matt Bai describes how the Republicans’, and then the Democrats’, strategies to win over the White House largely depended on the capacity of partisan think tanks to shape the discourse.

None of this is new to the developing world: the history of Colombia’s political system provides a clear illustration. Parties and think tanks share a common origin –politically driven intellectuals engaged in the struggle for the formation of the Republic in the mid 1800s. These intellectuals who came together around academic publications and newspapers later formed the basis of political parties and, as policy demands became more complex, also of the first policy research organisations. Throughout the 20th Century, Colombian politics have been linked to the formation and dissolution of think tanks led by party leaders and contenders.

The same is true of Chile, where the democratic government which took power after Pinochet in the 1990s was largely made up of the leaders and experts of the think tanks and other civil society organisations that had opposed the repression of the 1970s and 80s and organised the opposition’s programmatic platform. During a short period many found themselves without leadership and staff; and some had to close. On the right of the political spectrum, new organisations were set up to defend the old policies from the new government. According to Sergio Toro, in Chile, parties and think tanks have reached an explicit but informal agreement: parties do politics and think tanks focus on their programmes.

In another study, we have found the same intricate relation in East and Southeast Asia –albeit driven by different forces. The links between think tanks and the private sector, political and religious leaders, and strong single party states span the entire life of the centres. Their foundation, agendas, strategies and finances are closely linked to the purpose for which they were set up: mainly to promote economic growth, regional integration and national security.  Across the region the main differences relate to the identify of their financial and ideological masters: think tanks in Japan and South Korea are closely linked to the private sector; in China and Vietnam to the State; and in Indonesia and Malaysia to their national or regional leaders.

Most of them, however, appear to fulfil a common function: to legitimise the prevailing developmental state narrative through their research. This is also the function that internal and associated think tanks in the U.S., Colombia and Chile fulfil.

However, think tanks carry out other functions, too. Orazio Bellettini and Melania Carrión, in a study of think tanks and political parties in Ecuador, explained that besides promoting evidence based policies and legitimising them, they also provide spaces for reflection and policy debate, develop the capacity of future cadres of policymakers and politicians, and, on occasions, channel funds into political parties or actors. Other authors have included auditing and educational functions. These functions overlap with those of political parties –and in many cases, with those of policy bodies within the formal state apparatus.

This overlap stems from the fact that they share a history together, that over the years they have been affected by and reacted to the same forces, and that the relation that we observe today is only a reflection of their current relative position to other political actors at the international, regional and national political contexts.

As in any history the relationship between think tanks and their environment, and therefore, the nature of the crowded middle, is in constant flux. For instance, New independent think tanks in China patronised by returning economists, business leader, high level political figures have emerged in the last decade. In Africa, funded by foreign donors, new research centres, NGOs and programmes have also appeared in the last decade to fill specific sectors with information, experience and advocacy.

Not everyone is well-connected

I hope to have been able to paint a picture of complex network or system of relations between research and policy actors that can easily expand enough to reach the most hard-core white-coat scientists on one extreme and the spin-doctors of the party-political apparatus on the other. (I could have possibly talked more about the roles of universities and private sector organisations but I did not want to extend this post too much). If these (formal and informal) relationships did not exist, political decision makers would be unable to respond to scientific advances –and we know that this is not the case: legislation on telecommunications, health policy, animal health decisions, etc. are all examples of areas where independent (or at dependent of the interests of others) scientific knowledge has influenced decisions at a fairly quick pace (for good or for bad).

However, although the space between research and policy is crowded with players and relationships between them, not all researchers and policymakers are equally connected the other members of the system. And this is one of the reasons why the impression of a gap remains so strong still.

One of the RAPID programme’s most in-demand services is to support research centres and NGOs to develop policy influencing strategies. If there is one thing that can be said about most of the researchers and aid workers that we work with is that few of them (or hardly anyone) are sufficiently well-connected as to find our advice entirely useless. Some outliers who pass through our preparatory filters (or who are there as part of a broader programme and have little choice –and to whom I apologise- or because they are interested to find out more about this) but there is also  self-selection process that precedes our interventions. Researchers who belong to the technocratic networks and internal think tanks that I mentioned before, by and large, do not need our support. And others, at the top of their academic game, are probably already aware that their reputation alone can be far more effective than all the strategic planning we may be able to help them with. They may enjoy our support but it is unlikely to be game-changing.

One thing that these well-connected researchers know is that policymakers, and their advisors, do not just talk to anyone or read anything –regardless of how appealing the briefing paper cover might look or how savvy the internet strategy may be. They rely on their own networks to access and interpret information. This might not be always the case in more developed civil services where there are a number of formal mechanisms to facilitate this; but in many developing countries, often only informal channels are available –and trusted.

In any case, when prompted, everyone, regardless of their connections, can tell a story about how research has influenced policy; as well as how they or their peers, as researchers, have, at least once, influenced policymakers.  So this idea that there is an insurmountable no-mans-land that has to be bridge with new approaches and tools quickly begins to crumble.

The fact that some are not as well-connected as others should not be seen as necessarily their fault. Competent researchers are not by definition competent networkers or communicators. For a number of reasons (including the fact that decision makers do not have unlimited time to network and talk to every researcher interested in their work), not everyone can have access to the policy networks that matter.

Just as the relations between think tanks and political parties have evolved over time, so have the relations between researchers and policymakers –and between research and policy. In Zambia, where until recently, there was only one university, it is not surprising to find that most economists working in the government, civil society and the private sector know each other. And they have known each other for decades –they have learned everything they know together.

And the stories of researchers moving into politics and back are not unique to the US –in Latin America, Africa and Asia they are also quite common.

In conclusion, the middle ground, the space between research and policy, is full. Furthermore, this is not a snapshot or a coincidence but part of a historical co-evolution between policy and knowledge actors: one community does not exist (and in some cases, cannot exist) in isolation to the other. Finally, there are countless examples that show that the two main actors of this story, researchers and policymakers, are already linked.

The image that appears then is one of a system where some actors are better connected –either directly or through their personal or professional affiliations to organisations, networks and processes- than others. The better connected actors have, as in all networks, higher chances of making new and higher value connections and, as a consequence, command better knowledge of the system and how to use it. In this process, the least connected ones will feel increasingly isolated and have partial views of the whole system; and  this will only reinforce the perception of a  ‘gap’ and the need to build a bridge to where decisions are being made –in what seems like some far away land.

Therefore, rather than building a bridge, I would argue that we should learn to navigate through the system. What we need are maps.

Three considerations should guide us henceforth (to be addressed in future posts): a focus on research and policy rather than researchers and policymakers; the nature of the research and policy processes themselves, and the relations between them; and role that information density plays in facilitating the role of knowledge in policy.

… next week: 2 of 3