Think tanks roll in for debate

January 31, 1997

General elections put extra strain on the relationship between academics and politicians. Electoral and media pressures tend to drive out the more reflective and long-term interests of academics; for politicians it is a time to push established policies, not to think about new ones.

But things are changing. On March 1 Nexus is organising one of the biggest gatherings of centre-left thinkers in the UK, bringing together all of the leading think tanks.

Many political aides are asking what contribution academics can make. The answer is threefold: academics bring facts, a long-term timeframe and analysis that links rather than compartmentalises issues. Both Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown have encouraged intellectuals to "trailblaze" - to explore new and bold approaches to policy issues.

Academics have already contributed in the field of constitutional and governmental reform. But the list is longer than this. Many social and economic issues cry out for a longer-term, cost-benefit analysis - based on a better understanding of underlying causes, which would throw up radically different policy solutions from those currently pursued.

There are questions about the role of the state: which responsibilities it should take on or surrender; when it should provide and when regulate; and how taxes and benefits could be structured to maximise efficiency and justice. Finally, there are fundamental questions about the goals we set ourselves. How, for example, do concerns about improving "quality of life" sit alongside the all-eclipsing ambition of economic growth? If academics and policy experts do not ask these difficult questions, who will?

David Halpern and Stewart Wood are cofounders of Nexus. For further details about the conference, write to Nexus, Freepost, SE 8456, Stone, Kent.

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