Modelling the role of social science research within commissions

Public and private institutions regularly establish commissions to report, generally publicly, on a wide range of subjects. These commissions potentially provide an opportunity for social science research to spread beyond the walls of academia and theoretically effect policy decisions. It is therefore important to understand the factors that influence the impact of social science research in commissions. In their 1985 article, Commissions and the Use of Social Science Research: the Case of Safe Schools, Louis and Perlman proposed a model for analyzing the behaviour of commissions, based around the stages of the commission process, and the functions performed by the commission process.

There are four main stages of the commission: Formation, when the members are selected and the purpose is formulated; Problem definition, when the initial problem will be defined and the tasks to be undertaken will be determined, although these will be continuously redefined; Gathering information, when data is collected and analyzed to inform the final stage; Formulating conclusions, when the final problem is defined and intervention strategies are chosen based on both the data collected and the political and ideological positions of commission members. The potential contribution of social scientists will depend heavily on the importance ascribed to the social science by the sponsoring agency, and how early in the process social scientists become involved. There is also, however, a need for flexibility on the part of social scientists. Commissions will often conflict with the academic calendar, whilst the deadlines faced by commissions will place deadlines and constrictions on research that academics may not be used to.

The impact of social science within a commission will also depend heavily on the purpose of the commission. Commissions may have various functions: Fact-finding and interpretation, where commissions are established to determine the facts in controversial situations; Enlightenment, where commissions emphasize their role in defining the problem and may search for more radical solutions than were initially conceived; Legitimization, a commission may be established to confer legitimacy on a course of action that has already been decided upon; Bargaining,where commissions may be established to mediate between diverse interests – delaying volatile decisions, appeasing parties by showing concern, and creating compromise by bringing divergent views together. It’s clear that social science research is more likely to have an impact in a commission that focuses on fact finding rather than in a commission whose primary purpose is merely to delay the making of a volatile decision.

The commission is only the first stage of social science research eventually influencing policy, there are many other stages and many other actors involved who are not incorporated in this model. The model can helps us understand the factors that incline a commission to being influenced by social science research, and indeed much social science research has had an impact on commissions’ recommendations, but the impact of social science on policy is far more tenuous.

Read the original research: Louis, K.S., & Perlman, R.J. (1985). Commissions and the Use of Social Science Research: The Case of Safe Schools. Science Communication, 7(1), 33-62.

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