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

Do academics and bureaucrats mix? Their shared motivations — and goal differences — are important to the policymaking process, according to the boss of Australia’s peak science body.

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.

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  • disqus_qZR76kfIFS

    A government department that doesn’t have academics, business leaders, NGOs etc as major stakeholders is doomed in todays interconnected world. No one body or person holds the unique answer to all questions. Internet/external communication and discussion about policy leads to quality outputs that serve more than the political masters. Therein lies the rub of the matter. How brave are those in power and public office to share knowledge on policy direction in order to achieve the best results for the tax payer and the country.

  • Andrea Grosvenor

    Evidence-based policy has gone out of fashion. The new paradigm is PS reacting to thought bubbles from Ministers and their offices. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but seeking advice from real experts seems to be rare these days.
    Also important that academics seek out opportunities to work with government rather than wait for government to come to them. (Saw a sad example of this with a former Chief Scientist who, in the interests of maintaining ‘independence’ from gov’t, set up office in an ivory tower then complained that the PM and Ministers hadn’t come calling.)