Wednesday 13 February 2013

The cult of 'policy relevance'

Duck of Minerva draws attention to yet another know-it-all-know-nothing mouthing off about how political science should be stripped of state funding since it doesn't inform policymakers.  PM excoriates this reasoning, noting that if policymakers fail to heed social or political science this isn't necessarily the fault of scientists -- perhaps it is the policymakers who are at fault.

However, beyond that, isn't the worst part of the 'policy relevance' obsession the notion that social science exists solely to satisfy the epistemic requirements of the state? That academics are really just government think-tankers who do a bit of teaching on the side?

Why is it always just 'policy relevance'? Why not 'activist relevance'? Why not 'public relevance'? For that matter, why not 'student relevance'? One can hardly teach a subject that no one researches. Doing research for the benefit of students or simply for the sake of informing public discourse is at least as honourable, in my view, as producing knowledge for policymakers. Perhaps even more so.

The accusation that social science is policy irrelevant and therefore should be de-funded shouldn't be counter-argued simply by maintaining that it is policy relevant because that response accepts the premise of the accusation: that policy relevance is the only meaningful metric for assessing the value of research.

As the story about Karzai demonstrates, policymakers shouldn't be spoken of in such hushed, cowed, deferential tones. The people with the power are quite often complete cretins -- and nasty, corrupt ones at that. Why should we want to write policy advice for these people? Chances are they'll either misunderstand or just plain ignore it.

Quite simply, academic research can be a public good (and therefore justify receiving state funding) even if it doesn't directly inform policy-making. Having a critically minded, well informed civil society is at least as important for achieving peace and justice as having well-briefed and advised political elites.