Pragmatic social science research called for to inform policy

Governments unable to wait for all the evidence before making decisions. Matthew Reisz reports

February 13, 2010

David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Universities Secretary, has warned that governments “cannot have purely evidence-based policy”, adding that in some cases academics can be “naively ineffective” in influencing policy.

He made the comments at the launch of a new report by the Academy of Social Sciences, which aims to set out the significance of the disciplines in tackling national challenges.

But despite his insistence on a pragmatic approach to policymaking, Mr Willetts also stressed his commitment to social science research.

“If we don’t study our own society, who will?” he asked. “The danger of focusing too much on American peer-reviewed journals is that this can discourage British academics from studying their own society.

“On the other hand, governments, which are voted in on the basis of their values and approaches, cannot wait for all the evidence.

“We cannot have purely evidence-based policy. There are effective and naively ineffective ways for academics to try to influence governments in major policy areas.

“The final paragraphs teasing out the policy message in many research papers are often cavalier and far less sophisticated than the preceding data analysis... They tend to be more realistic in America, where many academics have sat on both sides of the desk.”

Also speaking at the launch of the report, Making the Case for the Social Scientists, was Cary Cooper, chairman of the Academy, who said that in the past, the social sciences had been guilty of “sitting back and letting the hard sciences take all the glow”.

Yet, he said, there were many examples of social science research helping to solve everyday problems such as illiteracy, crime, poor nutrition and parenting skills.

Others at the launch gave specific examples of how their research had influenced policy. Ruth Lister, professor of social policy at Loughborough University, said that at one point the Government had been hesitating over “whether family credit should be given to mothers or fathers”.

Her evidence showed that “benefits paid to the caring parent are more likely to be spent on children, and so were better at reducing poverty as well as being more cost effective”.

Yet Professor Lister urged researchers to remember that “even findings that governments initially reject may later be used as ammunition”.

She also stressed that the inevitable element of luck involved made it “hard to estimate the ‘impact’ even of good research”.

Mr Willetts also expressed reservations about the notion of measuring and rewarding the “impact” of research, a term he said reminded him of “a meteor slamming into a dead planet”. He said a word such as “exchange” may be more appropriate.

Meanwhile, Tony Wright, chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, worried that the incentives built into the research assessment exercise and academic career structures “tell against the social science community playing the civic role it should”.

“Many academics in the field are not in the business of writing for the real world,” he said at the event on 10 February. “Much of their material is impenetrable.”

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