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Moses and The West Wing: can academics help make policy?

There are a few fully-fledged fantasies about the way academics give policy advice to government. Let’s look at two: the Moses and The West Wing models.

In our Moses scenario parliamentarians sit — like students — waiting to be nourished with knowledge only the professor can provide. The professor hands down the tablet of wisdom, and the students depart to spread the word through reinvigorated public policy.

In The West Wing model, the president, faced with a wicked problem, calls on his old Harvard pal to solve it. Said professor swoops in, applies his mind to the issues at hand and, despite a few ethically challenging moments and bit of high drama, saves the day.

These are deliberate simplifications but they touch some truths — and probably more prejudices — held by both academics and bureaucrats.

The myths highlight the gulf in mutual understanding between many academics and many policymakers, which starts with a lack of understanding about how their daily work differs.

So, are academics and policymakers like oil and water, so different that a fruitful mixing is just too hard?

No — but understanding the differences between how academics work and how public policy works helps enormously if one is to influence and interact usefully with the other.

Two of the clearest thinkers on these issues are Dr Subho Banerjee, deputy secretary in the federal Department of Industry, a Rhodes Scholar with an Australian National University PhD in physics, and ANU Professor of Strategic Studies Hugh White, one of the nation’s most respected public intellectuals and a former senior political adviser and bureaucrat.

Banerjee says the “policy factory” is like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, clearly full of creativity and excitement, but with high gates obscuring the internal workings.

“Banerjee stresses that science does not make policy, the democratic process does.”

At a fundamental level, he says, both policymakers and academics deal in ideas, the churning, creative process of pulling and pushing them around until the best result is attained. The best result is where the difference lies.

Banerjee stresses that science does not make policy, the democratic process does.

White says the day-to-day job of an academic is to seek out the truth and to build knowledge. Public servants have quite a different job. They identify a problem or question to be answered and develop a range of solutions, taking a wide range of factors into account. Their work is about offering the best options to parliamentarians as they go about their daily business of making decisions.

Both talk much common sense. Both stress the impossibility of a good result without better understanding on both fronts, and both urge full-blooded engagement to improve the quality of public policy.

Making public policy is about balancing many factors to achieve the best result, and the input that academics make is one of those factors; it can be a powerful factor, but it is just one of a range.

So the policymaking process is a wonderful but messy contest of ideas. Given that, how does the average academic make their way in? The policy process can be usefully broken into five steps:

  • Defining the research question;
  • Developing solutions (options);
  • Consulting;
  • Adopting the policy; and
  • Evaluating its effectiveness.

Academic advice might be useful at any point in this process and, at a really high level, helping to define the problem to be addressed at the outset is critically important.

Navigating all this is clearly not possible without considerable effort and meaningful connections between policymakers and academics. Just knowing what stage the process is at, and what kinds of questions you might be able to usefully answer, is impossible from outside.

Making a contribution to public policy is just that — making a contribution. It is not like putting your ideas into a learned journal or giving a conference presentation. But the rewards are clear. Improving the quality of the policy that governs every part of our lives is surely worth the effort.

This piece was originally published in Advance, the magazine of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society.

The intersection between policymakers and scientists will be the subject of a one-day conference — Science meets Policymakers — on February 11 at ANU’s Crawford School in Canberra. Speakers include Dr Mike Keating, Professor Ian Chubb, Professor Brian Schmidt, Professor Hugh White, Professor Bruce Chapman, Professor Aidan Byrne, Dr Subho Banerjee and Rona Mellor.

Author Bio

Catriona Jackson

Catriona Jackson is CEO of the peak body Science & Technology Australia. She has a 28-year history in government, media and strategic communications and has worked as a senior adviser to the federal government.