How much is academia able to help society?

July 29, 2021 ,

Why it is a struggle to bring great university research into the halls of government


“You can build all of the community gardens and run all of the cooking classes that you want – they won’t address food insecurity.”

This is a paraphrased quote from an expert researcher in food security I met with a few years ago. Governments spend billions of dollars trying to improve food security, and evidence shows that much of this funding is directed to the wrong things. Sadly, there is little evidence linking many common food programs to improved food security.

Food security is closely correlated with income security and both researchers argued that the solution is a universal basic income (UBI) and that everything else was a waste of time. “We’ve presented our findings to the Ministry of Health on numerous occasions – I’m not sure why they aren’t listening,” said another researcher.

Having spent 5 years working to improve food security, these conversations raised so many questions. If academic experts are generating evidence on this topic, why isn’t it being relied upon more? I couldn’t imagine it was as simple as a Ministry not listening. But if proven solutions exist, why are governments still pursuing ones that are counter to the evidence? Unfortunately, food security is just one of many domains where this happens.

Academia generates huge volumes of evidence that could guide policy. Most academics want to improve the world through their work. And most governments talk about the need for decisions to be evidence-based. If there is both supply and demand, how come this evidence doesn’t find its way into policy? How can we get knowledge out of the halls of academia and into the halls of government?

Yes, the structure of government makes evidence-based policy incredibly difficult (as I’ve written about previously.) But government isn’t the only culprit limiting the use of evidence in decision making – academic institutions are equally to blame. Here are some observations about why I believe this is so.

First, the university environment incentivizes publishing academic papers above all else. Tenure is dependent on publishing. Funding is tied to publishing. Conference invitations are dependent on publishing. As a result, academics logically invest their efforts in generating new evidence as opposed to integrating evidence into government or industry.

Second, research is generally targeted at filling gaps in knowledge (i.e. something that is novel). But what is novel may not actually be useful. I understand that there is value in ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge’, but the more research and journals focus on this, the less practical knowledge they will generate. For research to be most useful to policy-makers, bureaucrats and researchers need to collaborate more in the early stages of developing the research agenda 

Collaboration requires relationships that takes time and effort to build. Our research institute, Pier Labs, has been working to build research partnerships with both policy-makers and academic institutions for a few years. We are just now seeing the fruits of this labor as potential projects come to life. Some academics believe that this effort and time would be better spent developing a research program to generate publishable results (which is perfectly rational given the incentive structures described above).

Academics need to also invest in understanding the policy process. I have had more than one academic researcher ask how we’ve managed to play a role in government policy-making. My answer is always that it’s taken lots of time and effort, not to mention patience when things don’t go as planned. It is harder for academics to be so flexible as they’re bound to publishing deadlines, internal review boards, and research funding programs. This limits researchers’ flexibility in how and what they research – because typical research methods require a lot more rigour and time than typical policy-making allows.

Finally, have you ever tried to read an article in a scientific publication? Assuming you get through the paywalls, journal articles are not the easiest reads. If one is not accustomed to reading them and/or has limited time, the citations, jargon, Greek letters, and statistical outputs create an impervious barrier to understanding. Whole domains have been established to synthesize research findings and make them more accessible to practitioners (e.g. ‘knowledge translation’, ‘knowledge mobilization’, and ‘implementation science’), but they have not yet reached policy-makers in meaningful ways.

Several new organizations are doing inspiring work to bridge academia and government. As a result, there are some successful examples of academic-style, peer-reviewed research making its way into policy-making. In my opinion, the most successful models of this are the UK’s ‘What Works Centres’ ( Government ‘nudge units’ set up to integrate behavioural science into policy and programming are another great example. I admire these models so much that they inspired us to launch Pier Labs, our own policy research institute.

Restructuring government or the policy process are unrealistic goals as I’ve written about previously. I would suggest restructuring academia to focus more on solving societal issues may be similarly unrealistic. If we assume that these structures will not easily change, what else can we consider?

At Davis Pier we’re exploring two solutions that we will discuss in upcoming blogs and whitepapers.

One solution looks at evidence-based policy not as a binary situation (either you’re doing it or you aren’t), but a continuum that allows governments to begin with small steps. We’ll talk about this more in any upcoming whitepaper.

Another solution we’re excited about aims to influence how policymakers make decisions, by nudging them in the direction of using evidence despite the structural barriers in place. And this will be the topic of my next blog.

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About the AuthorMike Davis is CEO at Davis Pier / Advising on social innovation, government transformation, and evidence-based policy

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