Reposted from Methodspace: a summary of the NatCen Informing Public Policy New Agendas for Social Research Conference (23-24 April 2009)
Chair: George Gaskell, Pro-Director of the London School of Economics
The first of the 5 panelists was Rob Niji, Deputy Director of The Netherlands Institute for Social Research. A key message from his presentation was the need for academics to understand the complex environment in which policy is created and the need to be adaptable and humble in their expectations. He gave an interesting example of the reality of policy making: the economic crisis, where a huge number of stakeholders needed to be consulted and the best solution found for all. There is no role in this example for scientific evidence and research. Instead, social science researchers need to help policy makers find an acceptable solution, not necessarily the best solution. He talked about the type of knowledge which was needed for policy making, and the reality that simple information which avoided political damage would be taken over theory.
Researchers, he suggested, are looking for the truth where as policy makers are looking for the feasible. Scientific knowledge is just one piece of information used to inform policy and researchers need to be mindful of this.
The second panelist was Patrick Dunleavy, Professor of Political Science at the LSE. Patrick discussed the problem of measuring the impact of social science research on policy making in the UK. How do we measure direct impacts on policy? Individual academics can use citations to measure the impacts of their research on the research community, but what tools do we have for measuring the effect of research on policy making? He suggested that a means of measuring the impact of research could be through tracking citations on government websites and in the media. However, this approach was later challenged by a member of the audience who questioned whether ‘impact’ could be measured this way as the media may pick up sensational findings to use as ammunition in cases where the research itself had no influence on policy making.
He argued that regardless of whether social research has a direct and immediate influence on policy, all social science research contributes to what he called a ‘dynamic knowledge inventory’, which sparks debate and keeps society moving forward.
The third panelist was Simon Griffiths from the Social Market Foundation, who was representing the role of thinktanks in policy making. He gave a potted history of thinktanks in the UK, arguing that there have been two waves of their influence on policy. The first being right wing post-war, and the second being more left leaning. He suggested that we are on the verge of a third wave – pushing a new pragmatism in policy. Thinktanks can be at worst self-sustaining bureaucracies, and at a bridge between academics and policy makers, thinkers and doers.
The fourth panelist, Sue Duncan and independent researcher, talked about what policy makers are looking for from academic research and what academics can do to most effectively inform policy. She stressed that the process of using evidence to change policy is extremeley slow. She said two things make policy makers pay attention: 1) evidence which is useful, and 2) evidence which is unavoidable. In terms of what is useful, she said policy makers are looking for a clear message with a policy focus which gives practical advice on its implication. She believes research can do all of these things, but often doesn’t. She suggested that researchers look at the competition (thinktanks, media, consultants) and learn from they what they do well.
The final panelist was Betsy Stanko from the London Met Police Service. She used her own experiences working within the police organisation to give advice on how academics can best get their ideas across to policy makers. She argued that the key trick was to present your findings as a short, attention grabbing summary, ideally having 3 main points policy makers could act upon.