Let’s close the gap between academics and policy makers: Peter Shergold on changing the system

Professor Peter Shergold, Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney. AAP/Alan Porritt.

Peter Shergold has worked at high levels of academia and the public service, and speaks here about how too much of the evidence-based knowledge of academia is not informing public policy.

One approach to improving this, he suggests, lies in broadening how research is valued by the higher education system so that academics have incentives to take their research into the realm of public policy.

Professor Shergold has a PhD in economics from the London School of Economics and is a two-times Fulbright Scholar. In 1987 he became head of the new Office of Multicultural Affairs in 1987, he headed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission from 1991 to 1994, was Public Service Commissioner from 1994 to 1998, and has been secretary of several government departments, including the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet from 2003 to 2008.

Professor Peter Shergold, Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Social Impact

There is a difference in the cultures of academia and the public service, who often are the go-betweens for government.

They have different expectations of research, different expectations of collaboration, different views on timeliness, different views on what is important in the research.

And that makes collaboration relatively challenging. It’s not that there’s a lack of will on either side, but in fact it is quite different. Often what the government will want from research and what academics want from research they’re undertaking is different, even when they are coming together in partnerships.

We have to remind ourselves, though, that cultures don’t have an independent existence. The culture around universities in Australia is partly a reflection of policy - that is to say it is public policy that sets such a high store on assessing the value of research by the extent of its influence in peer-reviewed journals. That in a sense comes from public policy and then through the university and individual academic respond to that.

It was interesting to read that Minister [Kim] Carr is now opening the door again to the idea of trying to measure the impact of research in a broader way.

I think that is really important, because the government and the universities that are funded by governments understand that the issue of impact is being taken seriously; but will they move on a relatively narrow definition of the purpose and influence of research?

Clearly it does give us the opportunity to say well what impact did this have on industry, or - my particular interest - what influence did this research have on the development of public policy?

It seems to me that so much of our university research in Australia is publicly funded, and yet in a direct sense it doesn’t have very much impact on public policy. And until we start to measure the broader impact of research, that is going to be difficult to change the incentives and disincentives within the university structure which is the source of university culture.

Is the proliferation of policy focused think-tanks a sign that there’s a gap in the market? Are they doing what universities could and should do?

The emergence of think-tanks within and indeed outside of universities is important and it does suggest demand for politically, economically, and socially relevant research that can have an impact on society. So, indeed, do ARC [Australian Research Council] linkage grants. But the fact is that if you look at how universities are funded, if you look at how the value of research is measured, and therefore if you look at how academics respond, it is still largely in terms of the influence they have within academia through citations, through peer-reviewed journals, and that I think means that for academics it is a big call to spend time building relationships with industry or government or spending their time not as just researchers but as knowledge brokers on the research they’re doing, because in general it doesn’t afford much reward.

You’ve written that when you’ve asked academics for specific proposals, they often struggle to come up with anything. Why is that?

Part of it is a view that if you become involved in that way and are willing to argue, and then indeed negotiate to particular policy outcomes, there is a danger of being co-opted by the government.

And many, not all, academics feel that that is not their role, that even when they’re writing on public policy issues, their goal should be to use their intellect and methodological prowess to critique government policy rather than getting in and negotiating possible policy outcomes.

Also, when academics do work with government agencies, for example, in developing public policy, the difficulty is they become excluded often at the most important stage. They undertake a consultancy for a government or they do a linkage piece of research with government, then the public service takes it and then the public servants in effect negotiate it with government in terms of it becoming policy.

An academic who has, in a sense, collected the evidence is often not there at that crucial stage. Some would like to be. But some would prefer not to be, because for them it is to become of a part of a process whereas they see their role as to stand outside and criticise.

From my point of view it is perfectly appropriate for an academic to say, “If I’m involved in public policy type research I do not want to be involved directly in trying to turn this into policy.”

But a lot of academics would like the opportunity and we don’t provide enough opportunity to do so, nor in the way we reward academics do we set enough kudos on that. Because to do that takes quite a lot of time to focus your knowledge, to negotiate, to get involved with public servants and government agencies, and in general that isn’t rated as highly in the university sector as undertaking the original research.

There is an interesting piece of research that is being undertaken by Brian Head and others [Professor Paul Boreham and Dr Adrian Cherney] under the ARC and its claim is to look at both sides - the expectations of public servants and social scientists in collaboration. They did a survey to which about 700 social scientists responded earlier this year and what it does show is that it’s not that academics do not want to collaborate - they’re quite happy to - but they are frustrated by time-lines, by perceived secrecy surrounding their research, by different expectations.

It is clear even from their early work that there needs to be a much greater negotiated understanding between both sides about what are the expectations of the research, agreement on what will be the contractual relationship, agreement on the extent to which the academic is going to be able to publish their research, agreement on what are the time-frames, agreement on what from both sides is seen to be the crucial purpose of the research.

Because you can be dealing with a piece of research which the government is interested in, but your interest and the government’s interest actually might be quite different.

Looking at the National Research Priorities, the arts and the creative arts in particular, do not seem to fit in and even seem misunderstood. Everything that is not expressly utilitarian has little place. It seems that in the government’s view, art is something that should influence public debate in what they see as correct directions.

When we come to measure the impact of research it is important that you can’t do it in just a very simple utilitarian way, and it seems to me that arts, the creative arts, the humanities, often can add value in terms of public understanding of issues, from the research that they undertake. It tends to be thought that really it is only scientists, medical scientists, and to a lesser extent social scientists - economists for example - who can actually have an impact.

But you can have an impact in many ways. Many of those at this conference [The Knowledge/Culture/Social Change International Conference] I’ve been doing have been looking at the extent to which museums can have an impact in being knowledge brokers in areas such as climate change.

It can seem that there’s little interest in excellence for its own sake. I’ve heard this complaint from some sciences before - pure maths, for example - but it seems that there’s little encouragement for excellence in the creative arts unless that then translates into officially approved utilitarianism, such as in persuading the public about matters the government is interested in - multiculturalism, climate change, etc.

I am firmly of the view that whether we’re looking at the creative arts or blue sky science, but sometimes you do things simply for the purpose of discovery and interpretation. And that’s one of the things that universities should be doing. I am not at all suggesting that all research should be judged by the political or social impact it has.

My view is different. To the extent that there are a significant number of scientists, social scientists, and those in the humanities who are working in areas of public policy, those people should have a greater opportunity to actually influence public policy.

The purpose of universities is ‘all that universities should do’. I say this because it is too easy to be misconstrued. I am not saying that research undertaken that has no immediate purpose should not be undertaken. I am of the strong view that it should be.

What I’m saying is that we need, probably, a better balance where in measuring impact of course we assess the intellectual value of that research through where the research is published and the extent to which it is cited internationally. What I am not saying is that that should be the only measure of the value of research.

For many people, not all, but for many academics there is another purpose, an additional purpose for their research - whether it is translating science into industry innovation or whether it’s turning social science into public policy.

Would you encourage academics to move beyond a Socratic role of picking apart the flaws in policies, and to put themselves into the arena by coming up with concrete alternatives?

From my particular perspective having been both an academic and a senior public servant, I am driven myself by a personal frustration that so much of the work being done in universities which could help to inform evidence-based policy is not actually being used in that way.

I would like to open up the challenge, to try to bridge the chasm between the two cultures. Each has their own particular language. I suppose in a sense I feel I can speak both languages and perhaps in some minor way act as an interpreter and facilitator between government requirements on the one hand and academic research on the other.

Too many annoying questions. The philosopher Socrates, here depicted in The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, was sentenced to drink poison after irritating the rulers of ancient Athens with his incessant questioning of assumptions. Flickr/Maulleigh

Are you an academic with experience of working with the public service? Should the National Research Priorities be changed? Should measurements of research’s influence or impact be broadened?

Comments welcome below.