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Political reality and the market in ideas: why research fails to inform policy

The demand for policy is influenced by a constellation of factors, including timing; there are windows (called ‘policy windows’) when some things can be done, such as responding to a crisis and times when advocating a policy demand is just a waste of breath.

Demand for policy ideas depends on their being a ‘market of ideas’. A good measure of this market this is the number of think tanks, or policy shops. Think tanks are not a reliable measure for the range of policy ideas themselves as in many cases they are sponsored by interest groups or have a political ideological position, but they are a source of new thinking which is specific to events.

Of course, not all countries want to have or even develop a market for ideas, because they don’t want the challenge to establishment thinking that such a market represents. Many a government will convene a policy review only to limit what conclusions that review can come to. Gordon Brown, the past UK prime minister, had a review of the UK’s health service but did not allow it to challenge founding principles. In my view, if you’re reviewing something, everything should be on the table.

Academic research and its incorporation into the market of ideas is a bit different from think tanks and government policy oriented civil servants. Academics are invariably experts or authorities in their areas, which is why they are consulted so often. However, the problem with academic research and experts is the way that research is done.

Researchers publish, and divide problems up into chunks that can be converted in a publishable form. Many a research project can product a dozen or more papers on essentially the same think published in a dozen different journals. This chunking of problems, a simplification, means that the fundamental complexity of most policy challenges is reduced as a result. In addition, academic experts endeavour to convert the problem into one that interests them. This has the effect of making their advice and insights conditional on the advice seeker agreeing with how they frame the problem. In addition, consulting a variety of experts introduces what is called the ‘symmetry of ignorance’ where two academics have different views, speak past each other, cite different literature, in effect mirroring their ignorance of each other – hence the symmetry.

Sean Carroll, the physicist, denied tenure at an institution for various reasons has written his thoughts on research and tenure, which may be useful in understanding why my three points below may matter. (

Keeping Sean Carroll’s perspective in mind, academic research fails to inform policy for some very grounded and real world considerations and there are three:

1. research is usually about the past; rarely does academic research inform current events.

In most cases it is at least a year out of date anyway, and publication for academics is determined by publication approval and peer review, which shifts the relevancy of the research into the past. In addition, many academics conduct research in an area, because they got a research grant or fellowship in that area and produced a string of papers or indeed a book; in many cases, they write only one book on the subject, don’t do any particular follow up, and may not try to establish a formal, funded research presence as that will take them away from research and publishing.

And that also means not publishing for wider popular consumption, such as oped or in magazines, but in journals with a readership in the hundreds perhaps (and a high impact number, too, which further filters what gets published).

In short, academic research may be out of date.

2. research is rarely specific to the current events that policy demands would require.

In most if not all cases, academic research needs ‘translating’ to give it relevancy to current policy priorities. Academics who popularise research struggle with their career and academic reputation as the only audience that matters is the academic peer group, not the wider public, whose tax dollars are likely keeping the academic employed.

Poor translation of research means that there is little synthesis of findings into a form that can be used by a wide range of knowledge consumers, but it also means that no one is looking at the real world problems and extracting meaningful research to address these real world issues.

In short, the academic research may be irrelevant, but you may not know it.

3. research rarely proposes solutions; this is the regrettable weakness of research translation.

Failure to be solution focused as such is not a criticism as there is nothing wrong with trying to understand a problem.

Academic research will understand a problem and frame the conditions for the emergence of that problem (why did it happen). This does not help with current problems which are invariably unique, perhaps wicked (i.e. complex) and in virtue of that out of scope for academics.

Fortunately, though, there is a market for ideas from people who do research translation, but their work is seen as biased because of its focus on solutions, the why we have a problem and what to do about it.

In short, the academic research may not tell you what to do.

But it also important to appreciate that the supply side of this equation, i.e. rule makers, do not often take kindly to a full throated market in independent ideas, as government usually believes that it is the owner of policy making itself. For those wishing to engage with centrist or even authoritarian states that believe they are the determiners of the public interest on all matters, a negotiated glide path to identifying common ground is a necessary challenge for demand side stakeholders. In many countries, for instance, patient advocacy groups may not exist, if they do, they may lack policy legitimacy or a desire to engage a bureaucracy. There are ways, though and that is for another posting.

What are some features to be alert to in assessing the demand and supply of ideas in policy markets?

Think of it this way. An ‘attractive’ policy market is one with high rivalry amongst those demanding policy, in the area you are interested in. High rivalry, e.g. many and varied stakeholders holding differing views with little consensus may be thought of as ‘attractive’. Narrowly defined policy markets require ideas generated to agree with the received wisdom and not challenge.

But in unattractive markets, it is much easier to align interests and achieve the classic win/win, while attractive idea markets may likely lead to win/lose (usually you).

This may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but the research based market of ideas when translated does offer a wider range of options for stakeholders. Keeping those options narrow, makes it easier to agree, but this agreement may solve the wrong problem.

Demand side factors

Advocating a new issue requires changes to occur at ALL stages of the political process, while protecting the status quo only requires opposition at any stage. Advocating new ideas involves new political dynamics with new interests to coalesce, so regardless of which side you’re looking at, both involve renewed complexity to deploy research and new ideas.

Unattractive Ideas Market: closed to new thinking

  • Low rivalry amongst those demanding policy (few and consensus)
  • Not an election issue (narrow public salience, cost of information relatively high and few groups involved)
  • Defending existing practice or supporting the status quo easier as there are well-defined vested interests

Attractive Ideas Market: open to new thinking

  • High rivalry amongst those demanding policy (many, little consensus)
  • An election issue (wide public salience, cost of information low, and many groups involved)
  • Challenging existing policy invokes opposition from well-organized vested interest groups

Supply-side factors

Unattractive political market

  • Broad policy domains with considerable bureaucratic rivalry (jurisdictional competition) which favours the status quo to avoid conflict
  • Low rivalry amongst elected officials as there is clear partisan ownership

Attractive political market

  • Narrow policy domain, with little rivalry among bureaucrats, so status quo not an brake on innovation
  • High rivalry amongst elected officials as there is no clear partisan identification with the issue.