How to speak truth to power

In an era of post-truth politics, academics and their research still have a vital role to play in influencing policy, says Graeme Reid

January 12, 2017
Nate Kitch illustration (12 January 2017)
Source: Nate Kitch

While most people, if asked, would probably agree that the best kind of policy is based on evidence, we have also notoriously entered an era of post-truth politics.

Given the apparent power of populist fantasy over rational thinking, academics face the challenge of demonstrating to policymakers the continued value of evidence, scholarship and research expertise.

More than three-quarters of the 6,600 impact case studies written up for the UK’s 2014 research excellence framework include “public policy” as one of their areas of impact. And while a small minority of politicians dismiss experts and evidence, the number of evidence-based consultations and policy reviews appears undiminished in both the UK government and Parliament.

It is also worth bearing in mind that while policy should, of course, be based on evidence, academic contributions will usually be combined with additional evidence on public attitudes, affordability, timeliness and other practicalities. The values and disposition of the elected government are also quite rightly a big part of the picture.

Nevertheless, it is easy to understand the frustration of impact-hungry academics faced with the vast maze of agencies and apparently unresponsive officials working on policy formation. Many UK universities are creating public policy institutes to further promote the impact of research on public policy. But what does such impact actually amount to? Can thousands of recent changes in public policy really be attributed to academic research? And do governments really want academics to act like lobbyists, each one pressing for policy change to demonstrate their impact? In reality, a much richer variety of impact is worthy of recognition and should be encouraged.

For academics, creating awareness of your research findings in the policy community is the first challenge. Policy officials are usually overloaded with information and under pressure to respond to immediate demands. Background reading is a luxury for them, so reaching the right person at the right time is crucial. Providing a new perspective on an old problem or raising a new concern about a settled policy position can open vital new dimensions of policy: the implications of anti-microbial resistance is an obvious example.

In the UK and many other countries, responding to parliamentary inquiries and government consultations is one of the established pathways to awareness and will often lead to publication of the research contribution, albeit without peer review. Your contribution should be concise, plainly phrased, rich in objective material and generous in acknowledging alternative arguments, including those from outside the academic world.

You might then be invited to give oral evidence to an inquiry, or be asked by a public body to take part in a meeting of stakeholders. Don’t assume that policymakers are interested only in your latest research: they might be more interested in your wider expertise, your research techniques or your networks in the research community. These are all parts of your impact on policy.

These earlier stages may follow through to action in the policy community. A parliamentary committee might make a recommendation that reflects your contribution. A government department might consult on issues you have brought to its attention. But the link between your contribution and the action might be a bit blurred. Don’t expect academic-style citations, but it is reasonable to ask policy officials for a note acknowledging your input.

By the time policy proposals are on the minister’s desk, much of your research evidence may have been absorbed by officials into concise descriptions of options and consequences. Maybe a decision will be made to change policy. But if the options are unclear or contested then the government may well commission further evidence or stimulate further debate: policy on runway capacity in UK airports has been through several rounds of consultation, for instance. If legislation is needed then the process moves from government to Parliament, creating a fresh round of opportunities for contributions to policy debates.

Sometimes policy change will be attributable to research evidence. Decisions on health policy, for example, are frequently enriched by academic research. Other fields integrate academic evidence into a wider pool of experience, such as the Bank of England’s committee for setting interest rates. There is no hierarchy – in political circles if not in the REF – in which one type of academic contribution is inherently more valuable than another. Pointing to a policy change arising from your research is no doubt gratifying on the rare occasions when it happens, but it should be equally possible to derive impact credit for contributing to a governmental decision to consult further or to initiate legislation, for instance. Nor, in either case, should it be necessary for the impact to derive from a particular piece of research, as was required in the 2014 REF.

The value of university-business relations is widely recognised in government and the academy, but, prior to 2014, the impact many academic disciplines have been having for decades on public policy has been less celebrated. This new emphasis has come along just in time given the need to reinforce public trust in evidence, scholarship and, of course, experts. But obsessing over policy changes at the expense of other important policy impacts is not the best way to carry out that vital task.

Graeme Reid is professor of science and research policy at University College London. He was previously head of research funding in the UK government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

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Reader's comments (2)

Surely you should be lobbying for change, if you have relevant knowledge, because it's the right thing to do. Not to gain brownie points for "impact". The impact agenda is just one more way that metrics are corrupting science. More at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xfFSExTctY&feature=youtu.be&t=34
There is one conspicuous omission from this piece. Graeme Reid will know better than anyone that government departments or agencies usually have their own policy preferences which have often been formed over many years. These outlive transient Ministers and are embedded in the thinking of departmental officials. Offering unwelcome arguments or conclusions is not always productive.

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