Slave of the passions: policy and research in a time of belief

Rethinking Policy Impact
Publication Date

The British people have had enough of experts

Michael Gove, 2016

Academic engagement with policy is taking place in the UK against the backdrop of huge tensions in the polity. Systemic transformations such as digitisation and social media (and the relational and communication changes that come with them) change the nature and quantity of policy debate, while at the same time transnational crises demand strong decision-making (Covid, climate change…). Questions of identity are increasingly polarising (Brexit, independence). This raises questions for the academy and experts: what does it mean to be speaking truth to power in an environment in which it is not just the policy and politics that are in flux, but the polity itself? In this blog, I outline my thoughts on what this means for academic engagement in policy.

A man wearing a suit and tie
Professor Jim Gallagher CB FRSE, visiting Professor Universities of Glasgow and honorary professor at the University of St Andrews

The traditional question of public policy is ‘what shall we do?’. Issues have to be addressed, problems solved, choices made, and politicians and policy makers sometimes turn to experts for advice. They might look simply for ‘enlightenment’ – disentangling the problem so as to understand what is going on (How do pandemics work then, doctor…?).  At the other extreme, they might simply want some experts readily available who can devise the technical solution to a problem (Develop me a vaccine, quick). Somewhere in between, and much more common, engagement is a back and forth process of ‘critical interaction’ and a complex interplay between technical, factual issues and normative ones. Choices about values get exposed, teased out and sometimes resolved in multiple interactions, as their practical implications become clearer (What constraints on public behaviour are justified to avoid infection, and why?).

Each of these modes of interaction needs different governance. The archetypical governance of the first is the Library; of the second, the Research Grant; and of the third, the Advisory Committee. The demands on the expert differ also: the first needs a communicator, the second a technician, and the third tactical savviness. They all however, share a common assumption, of a uni-polar policy-maker – an individual or institution decides what to do.

In British public life in recent decades the most major policy questions (Covid apart) have been different: not ‘what should we do’, but ‘who are we?’. British or European, Scottish or British?.  This focus on identity may result from feelings of loss of control or being economically left behind in the face of globalisation, and it is very susceptible to hijacking by ideologues of different sorts, such as Donald Trump, Viktor Orban or Dominic Cummings.

This is a question no expert can answer, but they are nevertheless called into the debate by those looking for one. Superficially, this resembles the interaction with a policy-maker. Sometimes there are demands to understand the nature of the question (What does it really mean to be a nation state?). Sometimes demands focus on technical solutions to a problem thrown up (Is there a technological border?). But most of the time experts are asked for answers that are in the messy middle, where we have interacting loops of conflicting values and practical considerations which affect one another (What would the economic effect of Brexit really be, what currency could an independent Scotland use, how can Brexit be made to work with the Good Friday Agreement etc…).

This blog is part of the research project Rethinking Policy Impact

A UK-wide conversation on the principles, goals and approaches that should guide the policy impact agenda in higher education.

Find out more about the Rethinking Policy Impact project

How are experts to engage with this? They can add some books to the Library, and that may help. The Scottish referendum saw a few. Or they can secure a grant to do a deep dive on some topic. But there lies the first problem: in these deeply partisan waters, funders want answers to the questions that help their case or they may dismiss expertise. In the Brexit debate, the bulk of academic expertise tended to bolster one side of the argument, which led those case it did not help to discover they’d had enough of experts and dismiss the relevance of expert evidence. More difficult still, the kind of iterative critical interaction than can be fruitful between a policy-maker and experts cannot be constructed between the same experts and rival campaigning camps. Not when the debate is tapping in to deeply emotive personal issues for voters.

In my view, the answer is not to throw in the towel, but to participate (admitting to, or claiming, expertise). In the kind of frenzied public debates we have seen though, consequences follow. Claims to objectivity or neutrality will be rubbished. Online abuse is almost inevitable, and like it or not, those in a binary debate about identity will be allocated to one side or the other in the ‘deeply partisan waters’ of the current UK public debate. I believe it is best to be open about one’s personal starting position, and whether strongly or weakly held.

This type of academic engagement with policy that calls for ‘public intellectuals’ or ‘politically engaged’ experts has implications for how the Academy organises itself. It is not enough to agree that some individuals will be politically active, and are quite free to do so. Nor do  abstract seminars serve the purpose well. Though both are to be welcomed, more academics with relevant expertise should be encouraged to enter into this highly political debate in a politically engaged way. But there is then need to think about governance. We ought to develop and reward this form of policy engagement in the way impact is recorded, and to include it in the work being done by funders and HEI to support impact, build skills and capacity. Reason may ultimately be the slave of the passions, but should try to guide them as best it can, not wash its hands of the whole messy business.

Professor Jim Gallagher CB FRSE is visiting Professor Universities of Glasgow and an honorary Professor at the University of St Andrews  

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.