Politics makes a mockery of impact

‘Knowledge resistance’ undermines efforts to show influence of academic work, social scientist says. Melanie Newman reports

January 19, 2010

The people pushing the agenda to increase the economic and social impact of academic research are in denial about the extent to which policymakers ignore scholarly work.

That’s the view of Philip Schlesinger, director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Research at the University of Glasgow.

“We are increasingly required by our governments, the funding councils, the research councils and our universities to make our knowledge widely available,” he said.

This is likely to lead to a “rising curve of media appearances” because, to some people, more appearances imply more impact, he suggested. But academics who attempt to act on the directives and apply their findings and insight by joining boards and advising policymakers “encounter something the protagonists of impact never face up to, as it would otherwise destroy their belief system – the fact of knowledge resistance”.

In a speech on media culture and policy at the London School of Economics last year, Professor Schlesinger said “nobody in polite society” ever mentioned or countenanced knowledge resistance, or “KR”. As pressure to demonstrate the impact of research increases, universities will have to open counselling units to “cope with the anxieties of those who keep getting the brush-off”, he added.

The professor pointed to the experience of David Nutt, chairman of the Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, as an example of KR. Professor Nutt was dismissed last October after he complained that the Home Secretary had ignored the council’s advice when deciding on drug classification.

Professor Schlesinger encountered knowledge resistance at first hand in 2007. His team was invited by the Scottish Arts Council to inform policy on “Creative Scotland”, a new strategic body charged with developing the arts, creative and screen industries. The team’s findings, which underlined the tensions that the new agency would face in trying to manage divergent economic and cultural goals, fell on deaf ears. “This was the wrong mood music it seems, though Creative Scotland’s interim board seemed most receptive at the time,” the professor said.

Academics as a group must try to understand why the evidence-based analysis they provide is so often passed over, he added. “To recognise that knowledge resistance exists raises far-reaching questions about what it is to have an impact and the conditions under which this might occur.”

One possible explanation for scholars’ lack of influence is competition from think-tanks, policy advisers, consultants and industry figures – all of whom often have one eye on a job in government, Professor Schlesinger suggested. “For such actors, knowhow is the key to the actual exercise of government power. The scramble for intellectual dominance means that at any one time there are preferred suppliers of ideas and evidence in a policy field.

“So far as the creative economy is concerned, unless academics are prepared to be largely uncritical advocates of dominant ideas, their ability to influence arguments is severely limited.”


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