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11 June 2013

Let's stop wasting money on social science research that never gets used

Britain’s universities are among the best in the world. In just about every academic discipline, the research that is produced in this country is of international significance. This certainly includes the social sciences, but given the quantity and quality of this output, how much of it makes an input to practical policy making?

Far too little, says Phillip Blond, in an important article for the Chatham House publication The World Today:

  • “When it comes to thinking up the brightest ideas in the world of public policy analysis, the light bulb always seems to be blazing above an American head.
  • “Just think of Nudge (Thaler and Sunstein), Black Swans (Taleb) or the term ‘Predistribution’ coined by Jacob Hacker. Malcolm Gladwell, who brought us The Tipping Point and Outliers, was actually born in England but as he emigrated to Canada at the age of six, it’s hard to claim credit for him.
  • “British academics, in contrast, rarely seem to make an impact. Academically, British professors are world leaders – but in terms of public policy they rarely supply the big idea. If they do come up with something, it tends to be the grand historical narrative – think Niall Ferguson – which, while compelling, doesn’t have policy impact.”

Pure academic endeavour is, of course, a good in itself – but shouldn't one expect some degree of practical application? The natural sciences contribute to technological progress, so why shouldn't the social sciences contribute to political progress? If they don't, then something, somewhere along the line, has become disconnected.

Phillip Blond's diagnosis is that there’s not enough people out there translating the results of academic research into insights for policy makers:

  • “...there is no obvious institutional conduit to public policy impact or ideas. We simply lack the hybrid institutions that other countries have. Funding and research arrangements force academics inward and even if the current research exercise stresses external impact there are no clear criteria for its assessment and hence no firm direction for how such impact is to be focused or rewarded.

This point about institutions is absolutely vital. The think tanks of the ‘Westminster village’ are far too small and too consumed by their own search for funding to fully engage with the available research. Indeed, in many cases, they function more like extensions of the lobbying industry than bridges to academia.

Blond identifies another major problem:

  • “As a rule (and there are many exceptions) most academics are soft left in orientation and conventional in terms of how they think society should be organized. Their ideas are often little more than the state should spend more or regulate more.
  • “In addition, our politics or public policy departments tend to stress vast systemic forces over which individual innovation or initiative can exercise very little effect. There is almost no intellectual recognition of the role that ideas or individuals play in the constitution of history and the decisions made.”

There is no ‘neutral position’ when it comes to matters of social policy, but academia is rather like the BBC in believing that there is. What results from this delusion is not neutrality, but the sort of centre-left preconceptions you'd expect from people who work for the BBC or in social science departments.

It is better to recognise that different ideas exist and create different institutions explicitly founded on those ideas:

  • “America benefits because it has a vast number of institutions organized around ideas and it funds them all properly. Money is directed primarily at ideas and secondarily at marshalling the evidence to support them.
  • “I am not arguing for this approach to the exclusion of evidence-led work – but I am arguing for its higher importance. I am all for evidence-led work on the basis of whether an idea delivers or not, but the belief that just evidence will give you an idea gets the world wrong.”

Obviously the creation of such institutions will require money and, unlike America, private sources  of funding are limited. However, with so much public money going into research that is never applied to policy – and to policy-making that is never supported by research – the rationale for reallocation is clear. 


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