How far should you go to secure academic ‘impact’ in policymaking? From ‘honest brokers’ to ‘research purists’ and Machiavellian manipulators

Long read for Political Studies Association annual conference 2017 panel Rethinking Impact: Narratives of Research-Policy Relations. There is a paper too, but I’ve hidden it in the text like an Easter Egg hunt.

I’ve watched a lot of film and TV dramas over the decades. Many have the same basic theme, characters, and moral:

  1. There is a villain getting away with something, such as cheating at sport or trying to evict people to make money on a property deal.
  2. There are some characters who complain that life is unfair and there’s nothing they can do about it.
  3. A hero emerges to inspire the other characters to act as a team/ fight the system and win the day. Think of a range from Wyldstyle to Michael Corleone.

For many scientists right now, the villains are people like Trump or Farage, Trump’s election and Brexit symbolise an unfairness on a grand scale, and there’s little they can do about it in a ‘post-truth’ era in which people have had enough of facts and experts. Or, when people try to mobilise, they are unsure about what to do or how far they are willing to go to win the day.

These issues are playing out in different ways, from the March for Science to the conferences informing debates on modern principles of government-science advice (see INGSA). Yet, the basic question is the same when scientists are trying to re-establish a particular role for science in the world: can you present science as (a) a universal principle and (b) unequivocal resource for good, producing (c) evidence so pure that it speaks for itself, regardless of (d) the context in which specific forms of scientific evidence are produced and used?

Of course not. Instead, we are trying to privilege the role of science and scientific evidence in politics and policymaking without always acknowledging that these activities are political acts:

(a) selling scientific values rather than self-evidence truths, and

(b) using particular values to cement the status of particular groups at the expense of others, either within the scientific profession (in which some disciplines and social groups win systematically) or within society (in which scientific experts generally enjoy privileged positions in policymaking arenas).

Politics is about exercising power to win disputes, from visible acts to win ‘key choices’, to less visible acts to keep issues off agendas and reinforce the attitudes and behaviours that systematically benefit some groups at the expense of others.

To deny this link between science, politics and power – in the name of ‘science’ – is (a) silly, and (b) not scientific, since there is a wealth of policy science out there which highlights this relationship.

Instead, academic and working scientists should make better use of their political-thinking-time to consider this basic dilemma regarding political engagement: how far are you willing to go to make an impact and get what you want?  Here are three examples.

  1. How energetically should you give science advice?

My impression is that most scientists feel most comfortable with the unfortunate idea of separating facts from values (rejected by Douglas), and living life as ‘honest brokers’ rather than ‘issue advocates’ (a pursuit described by Pielke and critiqued by Jasanoff). For me, this is generally a cop-out since it puts the responsibility on politicians to understand the implications of scientific evidence, as if they were self-evident, rather than on scientists to explain the significance in a language familiar to their audience.

On the other hand, the alternative is not really clear. ‘Getting your hands dirty’, to maximise the uptake of evidence in politics, is a great metaphor but a hopeless blueprint, especially when you, as part of a notional ‘scientific community’, face trade-offs between doing what you think is the right thing and getting what you want.

There are 101 examples of these individual choices that make up one big engagement dilemmas. One of my favourite examples from table 1 is as follows:

One argument stated frequently is that, to be effective in policy, you should put forward scientists with a particular background trusted by policymakers: white men in their 50s with international reputations and strong networks in their scientific field. This way, they resemble the profile of key policymakers who tend to trust people already familiar to them. Another is that we should widen out science and science advice, investing in a new and diverse generation of science-policy specialists, to address the charge that science is an elite endeavour contributing to inequalities.

  1. How far should you go to ensure that the ‘best’ scientific evidence underpins policy?

Kathryn Oliver and I identify the dilemmas that arise when principles of evidence-production meet (a) principles of governance and (b) real world policymaking. Should scientists learn how to be manipulative, to combine evidence and emotional appeals to win the day? Should they reject other forms of knowledge, and particular forms of governance if the think they get in the way of the use of the best evidence in policymaking?

Cairney Oliver 2017 table 1

  1. Is it OK to use psychological insights to manipulate policymakers?

Richard Kwiatkowski and I mostly discuss how to be manipulative if you make that leap. Or, to put it less dramatically, how to identify relevant insights from psychology, apply them to policymaking, and decide how best to respond. Here, we propose five heuristics for engagement:

  1. developing heuristics to respond positively to ‘irrational’ policymaking
  2. tailoring framing strategies to policymaker bias
  3. identifying the right time to influence individuals and processes
  4. adapting to real-world (dysfunctional) organisations rather than waiting for an orderly process to appear, and
  5. recognising that the biases we ascribe to policymakers are present in ourselves and our own groups

Then there is the impact agenda, which describes something very different

I say these things to link to our PSA panel, in which Christina Boswell and Katherine Smith sum up (in their abstract) the difference between the ways in which we are expected to demonstrate academic impact, and the practices that might actually produce real impact:

Political scientists are increasingly exhorted to ensure their research has policy ‘impact’, most notably in the form of REF impact case studies, and ‘pathways to impact’ plans in ESRC funding. Yet the assumptions underpinning these frameworks are frequently problematic. Notions of ‘impact’, ‘engagement’ and ‘knowledge exchange’ are typically premised on simplistic and linear models of the policy process, according to which policy-makers are keen to ‘utilise’ expertise to produce more effective policy interventions”.

I then sum up the same thing but with different words in my abstract:

“The impact agenda prompts strategies which reflect the science literature on ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy: produce more accessible reports, find the right time to engage, encourage academic-practitioner workshops, and hope that policymakers have the skills to understand and motive to respond to your evidence. Such strategies are built on the idea that scientists serve to reduce policymaker uncertainty, with a linear connection between evidence and policy. Yet, the literature informed by policy theory suggests that successful actors combine evidence and persuasion to reduce ambiguity, particularly when they know where the ‘action’ is within complex policymaking systems”.

The implications for the impact agenda are interesting, because there is a big difference between (a) the fairly banal ways in which we might make it easier for policymakers to see our work, and (b) the more exciting and sinister-looking ways in which we might make more persuasive cases. Yet, our incentive remains to produce the research and play it safe, producing examples of ‘impact’ that, on the whole, seem more reportable than remarkable.

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Public health, public policy

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