Academics can help prevent policy disasters, ex-minister insists

University expertise gives decision-makers breathing space, says former foreign secretary

May 27, 2018
Stop disaster

Universities have the in-house smarts to help decision-makers avert enduring policy disasters, according to a politician-turned-professor.

Stephen Smith, who served as Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, trade and defence between 2007 and 2013, said that academic expertise could prevent short-term political crises from morphing into long-term policy problems.

But he argued that academics needed to work proactively, move quickly and be very specific about their advice. “You’ve got to translate it into something that decision-makers can manage,” he said.

“Decision-makers aren’t going to be poring through PhDs or research periodicals. They want someone to say: ‘Here is a piece of research that’s taken years – the bit you want is on page 47.’”

Professor Smith has seen the academic-political divide from both sides. He sandwiched his parliamentary career with stints as a law tutor at the University of Western Australia in the 1980s and is now a professor of international law at the institution.

He also chairs the advisory board of UWA’s new Public Policy Institute, the university’s attempt to ramp up its third mission – engagement with society – to a whole new level.

“One of our ambitions is to put ourselves in decision-makers’ faces,” Professor Smith said. “If there’s a serious public issue, fact and evidence should be out there.

“If we’ve got people who have done research and have a considered view, there’s no point hiding their academic light under a bushel.”

The institute plans to deliver workshops, short courses and conferences as well as reworking research and providing “on-the-spot” advice.

The initiative is partly modelled on the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Policy and Public Engagement. Other Australian institutions have conjured different models of engagement, with the University of Melbourne’s Pursuit multimedia platform crafted to influence the policy agenda as well as to showcase research.

Melbourne’s vice-principal for engagement, Adrian Collette, said that academics – in stark contrast to government officials and journalists – rated highly on the “trust barometer” produced by the marketing firm Edelman. “In an era where global distrust of institutions such as government, media and non-government organisations is at its highest, it is imperative for universities to lead policy debate,” he said.

Across town, Monash University recently unveiled its own vehicle to fuel national discussion and policy reform. Peopled by leading lights from business, academia and government, the Monash Commission will conduct independent inquiries, starting with a review of post-school education.

Professor Smith said that some policy problems were predictable while others came out of the blue. Either way, the new institutes’ services would fill a gap for leaders of all political persuasions.

“You’ve just been hit sideways by something you didn’t expect, [and you need] quick reliable advice between now and tomorrow morning when you have to do an interview,” he said. “Where can you get good advice which will keep you out of trouble in the first instance, but also put you down a longer-term research-driven pathway so that you end up making a sensible decision about the future of your company or institution or society? This has great potential to help decision-makers.”

Professor Smith said that although such a role would not suit every academic, many would jump at the chance – and reap the rewards. “When your key performance indicators are assessed, you’ve got x number of peer-reviewed articles but you’ve also got yourself mentioned in the minister’s speech,” he said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Policy problems? We can help

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