What are the needs of the policy process?

Reposted from Methodspace: a summary of the NatCen Informing Public Policy New Agendas for Social Research Conference (23-24 April 2009)

Abstract: From evaluation to new public management to evidence-based policy-making, what questions have been asked of social researchers, were these the right questions and how successfully has research informed the policy process. Chair: Ian Diamond, Chief Executive, Economic & Social Research Council. Speakers: Paul Wiles, Director of Research, Development and Statistics, Home Office and David Faulkner, Senior Research Association, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford.

David Faulkner, talking about the relationship between criminology and policy, highlighted the fiftieth anniversary of the white paper ‘Penal practice in a changing society’ (1959). This was the first formal recognition that criminal justice policy should be informed by research. The relationship between criminology and government started well, but became more uneasy as time went on.

In the 1960s governments believed that science could solve crime. They therefore set out to do research-based assessments of the prison system and the police system. Not much thought was given to social research. By the end of the 1970s there was less confidence in the abilities of science to solve crime. In the 1980s a new course arose, focused on crime prevention and community involvement. But research was giving the government difficult messages: about racism, the ineffectiveness of police patrols, and the prevalence of offending among young men.

By 1997, with the new Labour government, there was a renewed interest in, and new funding for, evidence-based policy. In some ways this marked a return to the ‘science’ period of 30 years earlier. But there were differences. Research in this area provided practical ideas, evaluated specific programmes and initiatives, warned about complexity, uncertainty and variability, and provided insights into the system’s dynamics. The academic community can provide the government with a framework for communicating ideas, but the relationship between the two is sometimes strained. David posed the question of whether academics have lost their position to think-tanks.

Paul Wiles focused the discussion on the future for academics and policy-makers. He referred to a recent publication, ‘How academics and government can work together’, published by the Council for Science and Technology. When Labour came to power in 1997, academics were excited about the potential for evidence-based policy. Many are now disillusioned about their role in providing that evidence. But the report signals that government wants to work more effectively with academics.

Reminiscing about his time as a student at LSE, Paul observed that lecturers used to be much more engaged with policy than academics generally are today. Many had been refugees from Nazi Germany: they wanted to engage in the policy process to promote change. They were influential because they had something important to say. Social science needs to be high quality, but it also needs to have something to contribute in order to influence public debate. Paul suggested that British social science in particular has become too self-absorbed. This has an impact on the way we educate students: we need to educate them as problem-solving social scientists. The government’s social research unit has begun to talk about these issues. They want to engage social science societies more, to have them work alongside government and civil servants. The GSRU has been inviting research students in, so that they understand what policy-makers are looking for – to see if they can present their research in a way that can benefit policy-making. Social policy-makers need many of the same skills as social scientists.

Paul highlighted the low profile of social science in public decision-making, in comparison with the higher profile of the science and technology community. Learned societies in science tend to be very effective at lobbying for funding, and setting out how science and technology should be used. He believes that the social sciences are not as good at this, suggesting that academics and policy-makers need to work together to improve it – a possible role for the British Academy?

Paul suggested that the research agenda for social science sometimes ignores important public policy issues, such as immigration and migration. While these are central political issues they have a limited research base. Researchers need to look at whether they are doing the right kind of research. The form that social science research takes sometimes makes it difficult to engage with policy-makers. He questioned the ability of social science researchers to make their findings understandable to policy-makers. In the US, social science books are read by the general public. Policy-makers read these books, and are influenced by them. Yet where are the equivalents in the UK?

Paul also addressed a more technical problem: governments are interested if research shows a change, but they also want to know what the effect would be if it were to be applied nationally. What are the costs and benefits compared to alternative policies? How relatively effective is it? The UK lacks institutions such as the Kennedy School in the US, that act as intermediaries between research and government. On the one hand they have a role in training civil servants. On the other they work with researchers. While we have plenty of think-tanks, we don’t have enough of these not- for-profit organisations, where people can engage in social science research without the constraints found within universities.

Is it realistic for all policy to be based on evidence? Paul says no. Some public policy issues don’t depend on evidence: ethics, for example. And politicians and policy-makers have to respond to the public’s views and concerns. He concluded that we need a better understanding of how public policy is made in this country. Only then can we ensure that the kind of research carried out by social scientists will be taken into account.

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