Research and policy links in Australia

8 May 2011

Peter Shergold in The Australian presents what I think is a rather thorough, although not entirely structured, discussion of barriers and opportunities for research influence in Australian policymaking.

In Seen but not heard, Shergold outlines a series of barriers focusing on the different nature of the academic and policymaking business.

Most interestingly, though, he stresses that more research should influence policy but cannot -and no one can- establish how much should this be. Reading the article got me thinking about an old question I’ve always had -ever since I started working on these issues: if we say that not enough research influences policy, how much is enough?

If we were recommending ‘more’ spending on health we would have to say how much ‘more’ was: 10 million, 10%, etc. So how is it that we get away with it here?

The problem maybe lies in our understanding of influence. We assume it to be to change -to achieve something that otherwise would not have happened. And this has to be an identifiable decision or action. But influence can also be much more subtle. For instance, if my work gets a policymaker to consider an alternative course of action (which he/she then disregards) could I not say that my work had influence?

And why  focus on direct influence? Shergold seems to miss the importance of indirect influence when it comes to the role value of universities:

Consider the area I know best: the social sciences. Stuart Macintyre’s book The Poor Relation (2010) traces the history of the social sciences in Australia, noting that today roughly half a million students in 40 universities are taught by increasing numbers of academic staff who are expected, and funded, to conduct research. Yet little of this vast apparatus of research, intended to provide a comprehensive understanding of society, influences public policy directly.

Half a million students. Let’s say 5% end up in government (which is way too low, I am sure): that is 25,ooo graduates taking the research based knowledge they acquired in university straight into policymaking. In the U.S. think tanks provide a training ground for future policymakers -linking academia and government.

He hits the nail on the head, though, with this statement:

The difficulty with influencing policy goes beyond the supposedly baleful influence of politically aligned ministerial advisers and compliant department secretaries. The challenge is far more profound and deep seated.

The problem, rather, goes to the heart of democratic governance. The creation of public policy is not a straightforward linear path from research evidence to policy announcement. Instead, it is an iterative process in which policy outcomes are driven by unexpected political opportunity and stymied by political intransigence and risk aversion.

This was a public service world I found exhilarating. It required the skill to steer public policy options through the uncertain byways of political compromise and advocacy. Policy on the funding of higher education, development of an emissions trading scheme or introduction of welfare-to-work reforms (to take a few issues in which I played a minor part) were as dependent on emotional intelligence as intellectual inquiry. It was a matter of using evidence to build alliances and negotiate compromises to create political will and public support.

Policymaking (in a democracy) is not about direct influence -if anything, I think that direct influence is anti-democratic. The power of researchers to influence directly (without the necessary public debate and negotiations) is no different from the influence of lobbyists pursuing the private interests of their clients. Evidence, after all, is not neutral.

Influencing policymaking, as he rightly puts it, is about building alliances and negotiating compromises to create political will and public support.

Here is the article in full