Leader: Why should Whitehall be no-go zone?

As in the US, UK academe can offer much to the Government. But both sides must first overcome their mutual mistrust

November 6, 2008

England and America are two countries separated by a common language, wrote George Bernard Shaw. But there is another big divide: the way the two nations' academics and government interact.

In the coming weeks, academia in the US will see the quadrennial exodus to Washington as the new Administration calls on expertise in universities to help in policymaking. Many will serve in lowly advisory positions, but a few will join their professorial predecessors and rise to the very highest echelons of power.

In the UK, academics are rarely called upon by the Government to lend their expertise, and when they are there is often mutual suspicion.

Of course the political systems are different, and a US President has power to appoint in the way that our Prime Minister does not. Yes, there is the mechanism of the House of Lords for bringing non-directly elected experts into the political system. But although Donna Shalala, when chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was invited to become Secretary of Health and Human Services, the call has yet to made to a UK academic high-flyer to run a Whitehall department.

But what would be the benefit of such an appointment? In the US, the argument runs that academics are outsiders with fresh ideas used to dealing with the bureaucratic mindset in a way that frustrates those brought in from industry.

Here, there is mistrust of academic outsiders and a preference for loyal insiders on whose faithful support politicians can rely. The very independence that academics can offer is feared, with some ministers concerned about their not being able to appreciate the politics of a situation and viewing them as "loose cannons".

More worrying have been the concerted campaigns of vilification against those who have published research challenging government policy, with the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee two years ago raising "extreme concerns" about allegations that the Government had manipulated research findings to suit its own agenda. Some academics said that they had suffered psychological problems and long-term damage to their career after speaking out, with their research funding drying up.

A devastating attack by a minister on one researcher who criticised government policy moved him to issue this warning: "If you want to give honest evaluation reports to the Government, you had better be independently wealthy. Putting your head above the parapet risks losing jobs and contracts."

There has also been another major disincentive: the research assessment exercise. Policy-relevant research is less likely to appear in the top journals and therefore does not count in the RAE. Nicholas Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, felt the sharp end of this. His book giving policy guidance to countries after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe may have received a print run of 100,000 and been translated into 12 languages, but its RAE rating was a big fat zero.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt found himself in economic trouble, it was to the academy that he turned - his Brain Trust - to help him revive his ailing economy and the banking system. It is a real shame when ministers have access to some of the finest minds in the country, world experts in many specific government policy areas, that there are these tensions and barriers between them. In these tough economic times, the Government could do worse than look across the Atlantic for a little historic inspiration.

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