Influence or irrelevance?

February 4, 2000

Secretary of state for education David Blunkett asks whether social science can improve government policy- making

Can the social science community help to improve government or is it destined to be largely irrelevant to the real debates that affect people's life chances? I am not alone in posing this challenging question. The first initiative of the new Academy of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences has set up a commission to examine how the social sciences can have a greater impact than at present. With a new government, a new chief executive for the Economic and Social Research Council and a new academy, we really do have the opportunity in the 21st century to transform both the standing of social science research and its relationship to policy development and implementation.

But often in practice we have felt frustrated by a tendency for research either to address issues other than those directly relevant to the political and policy debate or, in a seemingly perverse way, to set out to collect evidence that will prove a policy wrong rather than genuinely seeking to evaluate or interpret its impact.

We clearly need to ensure that the government and the research community are working together to address the lack of good research evidence in some of the key issues facing us. For example: how to build capacity within local communities, or how asset accumulation impacts on the life chances of men and women.

So why is social science not having a greater effect? The problem is not primarily a lack of research funding. Government departments are spending more on research in key areas such as crime reduction, education and social exclusion. The Department for Education and Employment is nearly doubling its annual research expenditure from Pounds 5.4 million in 1997 to Pounds 10.4 million by 2001-02 and is spending more of this on education research. Together with expenditure on evaluating the New Deal programmes and Sure Start, we will be spending more than Pounds 15 million a year on research and evaluation by 2002.

It is also a question of improving the focus, relevance and timeliness of research, making it more accessible and intelligible to users, ensuring the research funding processes encourage this, and breaking down the barriers of mutual suspicion between social researchers and those in government.

Many feel that too much social science research is inward-looking, too piecemeal, rather than helping to build knowledge in a cumulative way, and fails to focus on the key issues of concern to policy-makers, practitioners and the public, especially parents. But I think there are many good examples of how social research can address key social issues and have an impact. For example, the work of Paul Gregg and Jonathan Wadsworth, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and John Hills on the dynamics of poverty has provided much of the evidence for our anti-poverty strategy.

The research assessment Exercise must give proper credit to those who are skilled in making their research accessible - including those who conduct systematic reviews of evidence. For social science to be more influential there also has to be a major change in the way that those working in government approach and use research evidence. It is vital that we overcome a culture in which ideas are unwelcome. Ideas are the lifeblood of politics, and the foundation for continuing progress by any radical government is that it embraces ideas at every level and allow debate to take place.

In the DFEE we are transforming the way that we use research. To develop academic expertise on key policy issues we are funding up to six dedicated research centres based within universities and research institutes. Two have already been commissioned to study the wider benefits of learning and the economics of education. The centres are interdisciplinary in approach, bringing together gifted researchers in different fields as well as developing the skills of younger researchers.

To gain better access to the lessons from research we have set up a new Centre for Evidence Informed Policy and Practice based at the Social Science Research Unit, at the Institute of Education. This will build on the experience of the Cochrane Collaboration in health-care research, providing a database of research evidence on education and organising systematic expert reviews of existing research. The new Centre for Management and Policy Studies is promoting practical strategies for knowledge-based policy making across Whitehall, including the effective sharing of information and training for officials.

We need to build a genuine partnership and interchange between the worlds of policy and research, and this must be based on greater trust. We need the brightest and best researchers to engage in research on the real debates in social policy. We need research that leads to a coherent picture of how society works as well as evaluating specific policy initiatives.

But if we are to encourage a more open debate of ideas there must also be a place for the fundamental blue-skies research that thinks the unthinkable - researchers who can challenge fundamental assumptions and orthodoxies. This may well have big policy effects further down the road. To encourage a greater inter-change between researchers and policy-makers, we are launching an annual competition to have a gifted researcher working alongside and advising on policy in the DFEE. We are also beginning a new series of seminars inviting researchers to present their ideas directly to ministers and senior policy officials.

Good government is thinking government. And a good department is a thinking department. I invite social scientists to work with us to find out what works and why and what types of policy initiatives are likely to be most effective. This is crucial to our agenda for modernising government.

This article is based on the ESRC lecture given by David Blunkett on Wednesday.

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