Don't shy away from being relevant

Every scholar wants their work to have some sort of ‘impact’, be it on the research community, in the media or in the sphere of public policy.

Working in the Cabinet Office’s ‘Efficiency and Reform Group’ as a de facto civil servant, I gained a first-hand insight into how this impact plays out right in the centre of government. I also learned a lot about where the opportunities lie for us to maximise our policy ‘relevance’, as well as cultivating an appreciation for some of the objections to greater ‘engagement’, and how they can be answered.

The opportunities for political scientists to maximise ‘impact’ on policymaking, from my personal experience at least, seem vast. Civil servants are very keen to seek scholarly input into the policymaking process. Working on an evidence-based policymaking project, I quickly found civil servants to be frustrated at the relatively few political scientists willing to produce informative, accessible work  that offers concrete recommendations for policy action. The Coalition government wants its current projects, like the Work Programme or Personal Budgets, to be rigorously evaluated for efficiency gains and desirable outcomes. Particularly sought-after are macro-quantitative evaluations of, for example, the effectiveness of competition between hospitals or schools. For political scientists this represents a golden opportunity to influence policy directly, maintain funding and assert the discipline’s relevance in an era of tighter budgets.

There are, of course, several objections to this vision of what constitutes ‘relevant’ political science. These objections can be based on methodological, normative and practical grounds.
Methodologically, political scientists of a qualitative persuasion might say they are ill-equipped to produce the sophisticated statistical research desired by government to evaluate its national programmes. Moreover, as I found myself , qualitative analysis and the valuable insights it offers into the deep complexity of socio-political relationships should not be abandoned in search of simplistic, often spurious assertions of ‘causality’ offered by quantitative analysis.

This point leads to another more normative objection. Do we really want government determining the methodological orientation, and indeed the very subject matter of political science? Under the sheep’s clothing of ‘relevance’ discourse, are we being stalked by the ideological wolf of government, seeking to blunt academia’s critical capacities and silence ‘alternative’ forms of research? These are fundamental questions I found myself struggling with.

Thirdly, from a more practical perspective there is the objection that policy and academia are two separate worlds, working to different timescales. Academic processes are lengthy and often laborious, and some of the most rigorous research takes several years to conduct,write up and disseminate. By contrast, I found policymaking at the centre to be breathtakingly fast-paced. Policies have to be developed, implemented and evaluated rapidly to satiate the demands of ministers, electoral imperatives and growing public expectations. Universities hence lose out to think tanks, whose accessible, targeted reports were daily reading material for me.

These objections evidently hold some water for the average researcher inclined to see Westminster as a distant, demanding and hostile environment. I would argue, however, that we should not be put off by the demands of the policy sphere. It became clear from my internship that the problem is perhaps less with the content or methodology we use, than with the way our research is disseminated. In reality, civil servants will show interest in any research that offers a perspective on issues that may be of relevance to policy, including research that is more critical of a policy agenda. The emphasis on quantitative studies is also flexible, as ultimately any research that provides useful insights into policy issues (broadly defined) may be of interest beyond the current focus on producing quantitative evidence. The key is that results are condensed and accessible, to meet the short-term imperatives of policymakers. One strategy here might be to offer short, widely available summaries of research findings, either in short ‘precis’ articles in academic journals (a strategy already successfully employed by management journals), or even free podcasts.

Finally, this can be combined with a broader agenda of ‘triple- writing’, whereby dissemination occurs in academic articles, policy-relevant research summaries, and media pieces aimed at
communicating with the wider public. Scholars need not focus purely on ‘policy-relevance’ – a broader agenda encompassing academic and public audiences means that political science need not abandon its more ‘critical’ aims, it’s merely a question of tailoring the message to fit the audience.

Matt Wood, University of Sheffield