Policy, Research

135 – Differences between the worlds of research and policy

Continuing the theme of research-policy links, this week’s PD outlines some of the key differences between researchers and their world on the one hand, and policy makers and their world on the other.

One of the interesting things as a researcher attempting to influence policy is observing the stark differences between the two worlds. There are major differences in the cultures, the values and the way things operate. Here are a few of the more striking differences, as well as some similarities or parallels.

Outcomes valued. Scientists place a high value on knowledge and innovation while policy officers seek to advance the public interest and to please their political masters, who are primarily concerned about being re-elected. Both seek to capture resources, although in different ways and on different scales.

Source of recognition. The sources of recognition for practitioners are different: from an administrative or political master in the case of policy, and from peers in the case of science.

Achievements rewarded. Policy officers tend to be promoted based on their ability to successfully implement desired policy programs and processes, while scientists are promoted according to their productivity of scientific outputs, especially of those judged to be high in scientific quality. Many scientists do not place a high value on research being practically useful. Comparably, some policy officers don’t seem to place a high value on policy achieving real outcomes, as long as political outcomes are achieved.

Controversy vs compromise. Policy officers aim to resolve management or political problems with minimal controversy, making pragmatic compromises wherever necessary, whereas a healthy scientific discipline thrives on debate, and should not compromise the truth. (Of course unhealthy areas of science can be identified, often when the science gets politicised.)

Communication. Scientists and policy makers speak different languages, with different acronyms and jargon and different hidden assumptions. Scientific communication can be hard to understand even between different scientific disciplines. Policy officers deal mainly with very brief, simply written and highly interpreted/synthesised material conveying only essentials with a focus on practical implications and recommendations. On the other hand, even brief scientific writing is considerably more detailed and qualified and much science appears to deal with practical implications as an afterthought, if at all.

Time frame. The time frame for policy development is usually short and the process places participants under great pressure, with little time for careful consideration or analysis. Science is generally slow and unresponsive to urgent policy needs, although it can be responsive in the longer term. Science usually takes a conservative approach to new knowledge, only accepting a change when the evidence is compelling. Policy can also be slow to change in response to new knowledge, especially if the redundant knowledge has strongly influenced the design or implementation of a current program.

Supply vs demand. Policy usually addresses a problem identified by someone else (in a sense, it is demand-driven), while the directions of science are usually selected by scientists (supply-driven).

Complexity vs simplicity. Policy officers prefer simple, straightforward advice with few, if any, caveats, whereas scientists tend to enjoy unraveling the full complexity of an issue, with all caveats and knowledge gaps highlighted.

Specialisation vs breadth. University training and the academic reward system encourages narrow specialisation, whereas policy officers need to consider a broad range of factors.

People focus. Policy involves intensive interaction among diverse groups of people, requiring highly developed social skills, while for some scientists working with lay people is not comfortable. They may prefer to work individually, or at least in groups of like-minded scientists.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Pannell, D.J. and Roberts, A.M. (2008). Conducting and delivering integrated research to influence land-use policy: an Australian case study, INFFER Working Paper 0803, University of Western Australia, Perth (submitted to Environmental Science and Policy). Full paper (70K).

Acknowledgement: The article draws on various published papers, particularly those by Sue Briggs, Anne Tomes and Sandra Nutley. See the paper by Pannell and Roberts (2008) for full details.