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Can Researchers Speak Truth Unto Power?

By 4 November 2015

As part of the first day of Policy Week 2015, at the University of Manchester, Research to Action attended the session entitled ‘Can Researchers Speak Truth Unto Power?’ The event aimed to delve deeper and convene a lively discussion on how best to engage in a dialogue with policy makers around contentious policy areas.

The event was chaired by Professor Francesca Gains, and included Martin Stanley the author of ‘How To Be a Civil Servant’, Dr Patrick Diamond, of Queen Mary’s University London, and David Richards from the University of Manchester. This varied panel of speakers, with experience across academia and government, examined the thorny question of how to speak truth unto power, especially when communicating either unclear research findings or research with potentially contentious policy implications.

Martin Stanley began proceedings with his five top tips for influencing the civil service.

  1. Don’t shy away from contentious topics. Contentious issues can be good for eliciting discussion as there will already be a certain level of visibility.
  2. Timing is crucial. Engage early before a direction has been set for the policy process.
  3. Think carefully about who to influence and network. There is a hierarchy within the civil service, and more junior individuals may be more receptive to new evidence and new sources of evidence.
  4. Tone is critical. Researchers must avoid seeming condescending or dismissive and instead empathise with policymakers.
  5. Avoid jargon at all costs.

Patrick Diamond gave an overview of his experiences within government, policy think tanks and recent post within academia. Diamond discussed the ambiguities that exist between experts and society, and the paradox that whilst the use of evidence is rising, general trust in experts is declining. A common thread running throughout Diamond’s talk was the institutionalising of evidence informed policy processes, and how evidence institutions such as NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) can help to unpack the nuances and subtleties within the broader systematic usage of evidence.

Finally, Dave Richards spoke about his forthcoming research entitled “The Westminster Model and the ‘Indivisibility of the Political and Administrative Elite’: A Convenient Myth Whose Time Is Up?” Richards spoke about the interplay of ministers and civil servants, the agenda of reform within the civil service and how these new interactions are changing the nature of accountability.

During the subsequent question and answer session involving the audience, a key theme that was returned to and debated was the issue of institutionalising evidence informed policy making. Panellists discussed whether the concept of creating centres to generate and systematise evidence in order to make policy (such as the UK examples of NICE and the Monetary Policy Committee) is at odds with the democratic process. Panellists also explored whether these evidence institutions are making operational or political decisions.

Another interesting question raised by the audience was what exactly is meant by the term expert, and is the concept itself constructed by political processes and a larger framework of values?

Finally, the influence of think tanks on policy and their role in creating an alternate space to provide evidence and critique policy was mentioned. Patrick Diamond’s comment that policymakers should be able to ignore evidence, as long as they are not ignorant of evidence, was a key soundbite that resonated with some but not all.

Live coverage of Policy Week 2015 can be followed on Twitter using the hashtag #policyweek.

Research to Action will also be holding a live Twitter Q&A about Engagement between Scientists and Politicians on Friday 6th of November at 13:15 GMT.

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