The wages of punditry

Ehsan Masood
29 April 2007

Michael Edwards's passionately-argued call on openDemocracy for a revolution in development research is overdue, but also timely (see "A world made new through love and reason: what future for 'development'?", 26 April 2007). It is especially refreshing to see a big thinker with extensive professional experience in the donor world restating the need for knowledge that is both independent and rigorous. It is equally important to hear the argument that the relationship between research, policy and action is anything but a linear one. Edwards's essay - adapted from a speech made to the fortieth-anniversary conference of the Institute of Development Studies in September 2006 - needs to be read, reflected on and circulated among every government building, think-tank, university, NGO and philanthropic foundation in the world.

Michael's vision is one where the many stakeholders in a policy-research exercise (donors, researchers, users and those that are the "subjects" or beneficiaries of study) recognise that they are all learning and contributing to a process of what he calls "co-creation". He argues that the practices and relationships carefully built and negotiated in the course of a research exercise are as important as any final product. This is beginning to happen - if not nearly on the scale that it should be - and Michael's article mentions some of the institutions where a movement of sorts is underway towards the "revolutionary social science" that he regards as essential.

In an essay so infused with commitment and passion, what most caught my attention were the occasional bleaker, even depressing lines: "We dream of a world ruled by love and reason, only to wake up to a reality driven by ideology, prejudice and power, exercised with a calculated and systematic rawness that challenges even the most optimistic of optimists." Edwards goes on to say: "In this form of modern politics, facts are for losers; and knowledge is valued, promoted or discarded on the basis of partisan interest."

Ehsan Masood is responding to the essay by Michael Edwards:

"A world made new through love and reason: what future for ‘development'?"
(26 April 2007)

This reality is among the major obstacles to realising Michael's vision of research-as-conversation. The co-creation it will require has an essential element built into it: that the research donor has no interest in controlling the final outcome of a research exercise, nor indeed of defining exclusively the terms of reference. Many donors of overseas-development research (including the departments of international development of Britain and Canada) are receptive to co-creation: they practice it internally and support it externally in many areas of their work. But the same cannot be said for much of the research that is commissioned by governments for their domestic environment. This has to be co-creation's next frontier.

Eyes wide open

I recently interviewed a British academic: someone very respected in the relevant field, who had (politely) refused a request from government to provide advice on government policy. The opportunity to make a mark inside the halls of power was declined, the academic told me, because the phone-call from the ministry did not seem to be an entirely genuine one. The reason for the inquiry was not so much to help modify or improve on a policy, but to put an academic rubber-stamp on one that was already set to be implemented.

This story is by no means unusual, nor is the academic alone. There are increasing numbers of specialists who find themselves in the position of being asked to lend the authority of "science" or research to a policy that has already been shaped inside a ministry and is set to be rolled out. Furthermore, not all of those who are courted in such a way by those in power decline the opportunity.

One of the best-known examples is that of the so-called Jasons, a group of elite American scientists who are asked to provide the United States government with classified advice on technical problems in defence and security. Those who agree to serve can (according to Ann Finkbeiner's The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite) provide any number of reasons - intellectual curiosity (including the desire to know how government works), patriotism, a straightforward boost to income. These have not stopped the Jasons from being heavily criticised, for example for providing advice on alternatives to bombing during the Vietnam war and on aspects of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative. A few advisers have said they now regret what they did.

The Jasons (past and current) are thought to number no more than 100. But the fact that governments are increasingly co-opting the research community into policy work is likely to mean more Jasons in more countries: talented academics chosen to produce work at short notice that will never see the outside of a government building; often work that is clearly designed to give academic support to a pre-existing policy.

There is of course nothing new in an academic moving from the role of analysis and observation to that of policy-player, nor should this be seen automatically as reprehensible. If anything, good public policy needs inputs from the research community, as it does inputs from other interest groups. But in order to retain the rigour and independence that Michael Edwards says is a precondition, the best of those who choose to play the game should do so with their eyes wide open.

The very phrase "eyes wide open" in this context consciously implies that governments (even the most democratic) are prone to using research in ways (or to support policies) which the researchers themselves may not agree with. Bluntly speaking, it means that if you get a call from a ministry asking for advice or expertise, put down a few conditions before signing on the dotted-line.

Ehsan Masood is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the author of British Muslims: Media Guide (British Council/Association of Muslim Social Scientists, 2006), and co-editor (with Daniel Schaffer) of Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press). He has also edited How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press).

He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network

Among Ehsan Masood's articles in openDemocracy:

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (December 2005)

"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (July 2006)

"Africans and climate change"
(7 February 2007)

"Muslims and multiculturalism: lessons from Canada"
(7 March 2007)

"A German vision: greening globalization" (28 March 2007)

"Pakistan: the army as the state"
(12 April 2007)

Between vision and reality

What should these conditions be? Three must be uppermost in the researchers' mind. First, there must be no secrecy. The advice or results given to civil servants in the course of the exercise should be the same as that shared with the public. Second, researchers must be free to come to a conclusion that is at odds with - or even critical of - state policies. In the case of actual projects, there should be insistence on multidisciplinary project teams involving researchers, users, donors and others. Third, good research needs ample time: a project of three or four years has the potential to yield results that can be trusted by all those involved and that will be meaningful and effective. This means that requests from government departments for "research" projects to be completed in six months (or timed to be published before the likely announcement of a new policy) need to be treated with an appropriate level of caution.

Many institutions have proved effective in advising governments while retaining a high degree of independence and rigour; they include academies of leading scientists (such as Britain's Royal Society and the US's National Academy of Science [Nas]). The Nas is mandated in law to preserve its independence, and has had to suffer the wrath of the Bush administration over its critical advice over the latter's climate-change policy. Other institutions which have passed the key test include many non-governmental organisations and think-tanks; individual activist-academics can play an important role, such as the economist Jeffrey Sachs (director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and current BBC Reith lecturer) and the sociologist Anthony Giddens (former director of the London School of Economics, and a Labour member of Britain's upper parliamentary chamber, the House of Lords).

Indeed, Giddens himself can be seen (in a tangential way) as among the intellectual sources of the idea of co-creation. His body of work includes a theory called "structuration", which attempts to explain the relationship between individuals and the conditions in which they find themselves in. Giddens argued as long ago as the mid-1970s that the relationship between people, institutions and societies is not a linear one. Environments do affect and change people and institutions, but the reverse can also happen: environments also have the potential to be changed by those that inhabit them. This idea is familiar to scientists who study climate (among other topics), and it is now also being observed at much smaller scales too (in microbiology, for example).

There is a long way to go for the present reality of policy research to incorporate such understandings and turn "co-creation" from desired goal to everyday practice. If anything, the temptations faced by top-flight researchers to move in the opposite direction - towards compromise and closure - are set to increase. Before they surrender to them, researchers should read and engage with Michael Edwards's essay. It is a restatement of principle in new conditions, and offers a vision that demands to be realised.

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