‘Want to get your research noticed by politicians? Work with a think tank’, Guardian, 27 April 2015

Academic impact on politicians can be a hit and miss affair. Indeed, when it comes to direct influence, it may well be more hit than miss. Carefully crafted press releases and the launch of new institutes is one thing. But unless, like Oxford’s Stewart Wood and Marc Stears, you are personal friends of the Leader of the Opposition, your chances of getting the sort of face-time with the big-beasts of Westminster that would allow you to showcase your research, however relevant, are pretty small.

Approaching their parties as organisations isn’t easy either. Anyone who thinks university websites are opaque when it comes to telling you who exactly does what should try searching for who’s in charge of a particular policy area in a political party. Which is why it may make much more sense to try a think tank instead.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for wondering why. Labour’s election manifesto doesn’t mention think tanks at all, and nor does the Liberal Democrats’, while the only mention of them in their Tory equivalent is confined to a claim that “the Commonwealth Fund has found that under the Conservatives the NHS has become the best healthcare system of any major country”.

Yet turn to the website of a prominent centre-right think tank and you gain a very different impression. Policy Exchange produces a whizzy graphic to back up its claim to have influenced the manifestos of all three main parties, albeit to different degrees. It also cites a Channel Four report on the Tories’ attempt to re-animate Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy, to the effect that “Policy Exchange first floated the basic idea of forcing councils to sell off their most valuable social housing in this 2012 paper”.

This should surprise no-one. Clearly, there is a risk of over-claiming by think tanks, but there is no doubt that parties listen to them – and now possibly more than ever. After all, in an era of valence rather than position politics, where “what counts is what works” rather than what conforms to tribal notions of left and right, the UK’s main parties are bound to be more eclectic, even promiscuous.

With so much spending devoted to fundraising, admin and marketing, those same parties also travel even lighter than ever in terms of their own policy capacity – and the latter was never great to start with. They failed in their heydays to do what their German equivalents did and set up well-funded foundations to do some of the intellectual heavy-lifting for them.

That said, parties do enjoy particularly close relationships with certain think tanks. Although the IPPR, like Policy Exchange, claims pick up in a range of party manifestos for its ideas, it is known to be close to Labour – a closeness fostered by an interchange of staff. Its current director, Nick Pearce, was head of the number 10 policy unit under Gordon Brown. George Osborne’s policy advisor, on the other hand, is Neil O’Brien, formerly director of, first, Open Europe, and then Policy Exchange.

The author of the latter’s 2012 report recommending councils be obliged to sell-off high value properties is Alex Morton, who now works in Downing Street – another perfect illustration that politics in the UK, despite its being a country of some 64 million, can sometimes be a very small world indeed.

For academics hoping to impact (pun very much intended) on public policy this can be seen in one of two ways.

Pessimists see a hermetically sealed environment that anyone outside of what George Osborne and his ilk like to think of as “the guild” can permeate: what, then, is the point of trying?

Optimists, on the other hand, believe that the so-called “Westminster bubble”, is actually quite easy to prick – as long as you pick your pin (and your moment) carefully. That may well mean using think tanks as privileged mediators capable of translating and uploading academic work in smarter fashion than a direct approach to parties, politicians and, indeed, civil servants could possibly achieve.

Most think tanks keep an eye out for and, indeed, welcome academic work which, in their eyes anyway, supports whatever contention or policy they are trying hard to push. This means that academic work can turn up in reports, which in turn influence policy, without its authors necessarily knowing about it beforehand, or at all.

Take for example this research paper about responsible capitalism. It was picked up in a think tank piece before informing this speech by one of the formulators of Labour’s 2015 manifesto. Sometimes this can occur in ways that authors’ find problematic: Morton’s Policy Exchange Report, for instance, is by no means alone in containing references to academic research whose authors might well contest the way it has been used.

Although a proactive, genuinely two-way approach on both sides can help to minimise such problems, some loss of control almost certainly comes with the territory whenever an academic deals with parties and think tanks. But when they are such fertile territory for impact, it may be a risk that more of us should be prepared to run.

[Originally published at http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/apr/27/want-to-get-your-research-noticed-by-politicians-work-with-a-think-tank]


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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