Mix in with mandarins

April 15, 2005

As party manifestos come under scrutiny, Nick Pearce asks why so few academics help make policy

When that other Jean-Paul (Sartre) died, thousands turned out on the streets of Paris to mourn his passing. He was a public intellectual who had spent his life engaged with political causes.

Such an event is inconceivable in the UK. Politically engaged academics are rarely in the public eye. If intellectuals appear on Radio 4 too often they are called media tarts.

But it is not just the public eye from which academics are noticeably absent. It is public policymaking.

Unlike their US or European counterparts, British academics have only limited, sporadic involvement in the formation of policy and governance of the country.

The chief culprit is the research assessment exercise. The RAE rewards journal articles and the judgement of academic peers and prizes them above the grubby business of getting involved in public policy debate. It sets little store on dissemination to non-academic audiences and skews research towards the politically irrelevant.

Coming hard on the heels of Margaret Thatcher's ideological hostility to the liberal Left consensus of the senior common room, its introduction could not have been more badly timed. Just as the state turned away from the universities, academia turned inwards.

Academic culture also militates against democratic inclinations. Those who make an effort to translate their ideas into the language of public discourse often end up on the receiving end of institutional snobbery.

Those who do put their heads above the public parapet may get mangled in the media, inducing risk aversion.

If university funding and academic culture explain much of the problem, the lack of receptiveness of Whitehall explains the rest. John Maynard Keynes famously said: "There is nothing a government hates more than to be well informed; for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult."

Yet new Labour's "what works" pragmatism and evidence-based policymaking should have proved fertile territory for social scientists and political theorists. And at first glance, there has been more openness to intellectuals in the Government since 1997. Academics have been drawn directly into service in No 10 (Anthony Giddens, Julian Le Grand); the Treasury (Paul Gregg, Stewart Wood) and central units such as the Strategy Unit (David Halpern, Shamit Saggar).

Policy documents produced by these departments are replete with academic references. But two things are striking about this list. First, all the academics are politically motivated and astute. They are prepared to get their hands dirty in Whitehall.

Second, and more important, they are relatively concentrated in the central offices and strategic units of the state. They haven't penetrated the wider Whitehall culture to any significant degree.

The most important explanation for this is the Northcote-Trevelyan tradition of Civil Service neutrality. To protect the impartiality of civil servants, politically motivated outsiders are confined largely to advisory roles.

Contrast this with the US, where the Federal Government is highly political and undergoes dramatic restructuring with every new administration. This creates a huge amount of churn in and out of policy advising, part of which traditionally takes place between academia and policymakers.

Academics can land top ministerial jobs, and this happens under administrations of whatever political complexion, as demonstrated by the examples of Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, and Condoleezza Rice, who was National Security Adviser and is now Secretary of State in the Bush Administration.

The gap between academia and universities in the UK has been filled by think-tanks such as my own. They provide a bridge between ministers, civil servants and academics - drawing on the best research, thinking through its policy consequences and presenting options to politicians.

But the bridge-building can be hard work, and we have to run against the grain of institutional culture on both sides.

It is not all bad news. Natural scientists have become leading intellectual figures in the public domain and welcomed by government. Few were surprised when Richard Dawkins topped last year's Prospect poll of public intellectuals. On the other side of the fence, government departments have stronger research and analytical sections than in the past. The research councils are also trying to promote academic engagement with policymakers.

But we are a long way from where we should be: with a university sector in which public policy engagement counts and Whitehall machinery that is responsive to what academic researchers have to say. Those who care about the public realm should do something about it.

Nick Pearce is director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

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