Thomas Basbøll, who I sometimes have discussions with on Twitter, has a guest post on the LSE impact blog claiming that we need our scientists to build models that frame our policies, not to tell stories that shape them. If I understand what is being suggested in the post about how research should be conducted, then I agree with it. Researchers are meant to be doing research that aims to develop understanding of what is being studied. The results of this research can inform policy, but the research itself should not be designed to influence policy in some specific way.
However, I’m not convinced that what is being claimed in the post about how scientists are being encouraged to behave is necessarily true. The pressure on researchers to have impact does not imply that they should decide in advance in what way their research should influence some specific policy option; it means that they should tackle problems that have societal relevance. Ken Caldeira, for example, argues that [i]f you are not working on a problem that you feel is important and pressing, then you are probably working on the wrong problem. I don’t entirely agree with this (I don’t think we can always know whether or not some research will have impact) but I do agree that there are pressing problems that we should be focussing on.
Another factor is how one presents the results of one’s research. Researchers have some obligation to communicate with the public and with policy makers. However, in politically charged areas it can be important to understand how some research might be received and to think about how to present it in a way that makes it difficult to misinterpret. This does not imply leaving things out, or hiding inconvenient results; it simply means try to be careful about how the results are presented. It’s no good doing societally relevant research if the way it is interpreted publicly is not actually consistent with what the research is actually suggesting.
So, I agree with what Thomas says about how research should be conducted (it should inform, rather than influence) but I think one still has to be aware that research isn’t taking place in a vacuum. You have to decide what problems are worth tackling, and you also should be aware of the societal context when presenting the results to the public and to policy makers. If you want your research to inform policy, then it’s no good if what the public and policy makers hear isn’t what you intended.
We need our scientists to build models that from our policies, not to tell stories that shape them (post by Thomas Basbøll).
On choosing problems to work on (post by Ken Caldeira).