UK social scientists feel a growing pressure to achieve policy change. In reality, this process is more complex than it sounds. James Lloyd looks at six reasons that limit the impact research can have on policy change. None of this should suggest that academic researchers shouldn’t seek to influence policymaking. But more consideration is needed on how best academic evidence can leverage the real-world nature of policymaking.
There has been understandable relief at indications from the government that academic researchers will be exempt from anti-advocacy clauses in research grant contracts. The possibility that academics with publicly funded research grants would not be able to press the government for policy change was clearly unacceptable and anti-democratic.
However, the announcement comes at a time of intense debate about the importance of academics being seen to achieve public policy change using their research. Everyone agrees the best available evidence should inform policy decision-making. And most can point to policy decisions that fall short of the paradigm of ‘evidence-based policy-making’. Yet out of such consensus, UK social scientists seemingly feel under growing pressure to achieve policy change: to show not just engagement or use of their research – both challenging in themselves – but discernible changes in policy and practice.
The notion of academic experts as objective, benign guardians of knowledge who can glide into the policy process and effect change through revealing the insights from their work is an attractive one. But is it realistic or even desirable to expect academics to achieve policy change? Here are some reasons to think not:
1. Some research has no policy relevance
This should be obvious, but it is worth highlighting that much excellent social science research has limited relevance to public policy or contemporary policy debates and agendas.
2. Much research supports the policy status quo
Another truth that is more obvious to those working in policy analysis: much social science research supports the status quo in public policy. However, such research is no less useful or important to policymakers, and it is wrong to think that research has only achieved policy impact if there is an identifiable change in policy design.
3. Politics almost always trumps evidence
Evidence-based policymaking is an attractive paradigm, but in a parliamentary democracy, political considerations will almost always take precedence. Policy decision-making is bound by what is politically feasible. If a researcher’s work points to policy choices beyond these boundaries, it is usually unrealistic to expect policy change, however compelling the research findings. And if bits of an academic’s research help to justify a politician’s ideology or perspective, it is usually the findings that will be most likely to result in policy change.
4. Policymaking is path-dependent and chaotic
Expecting anyone from any field to routinely influence or change policy is unrealistic. Personalities, relationships and politics all determine policy decisions, more than we might want to believe. Even formal government ‘consultations’ are subject to drivers and motivations not apparent to anyone outside the sponsoring department.
5. ‘Bounded rationality’ applies to researchers
Just as policymakers are limited in their analytical and knowledge capacity, so are academic researchers. Academics may think they know how a particular public policy should be designed, but there are inevitably factors beyond their knowledge or understanding, and they are not necessarily well placed to make policy recommendations. In fact, the role of ‘policy analyst’ is increasingly being promoted as a standalone profession by the civil service, involving distinct knowledge and skills that academics are simply not trained or practised in.
6. Influencing policy is a specialist, time-consuming activity
Indeed, a huge lobbying industry comprised of skilled, experienced public affairs professionals exists to influence policy decisions for their clients or employers – often with negligible success. It is not realistic to expect specialist academic researchers to possess a skill-set from a completely different sector, nor compete effectively with it when academics promote policy recommendations that conflict with other interest groups.