Monday, 24 June 2013

The impact of UK academics on policy: a comment

Phillip Blond, the director of a think tank called ResPublica, stated this month that British academics* have no impact on government policy. This, he claims, is because their research is too "evidence-based" and "value-free", and they fail to provide policy makers with "sweeping systemic and universal accounts".

The first thing that occurred to me when I read Blond's post was how incredibly imperialistic it sounded - particularly his invocation of the need for the UK to produce "universal truths that can apply across different frames and distinct cultures". Most academics would balk at this: first, because they generally think that evidence is a good thing; and second because the top-down, universal generalisations that Blond advocates tend to lead to serious problems for those at the margins of the monolith.

I then recalled a piece of fascinating and extremely relevant research by Keith Tribe, an economic historian at Bristol University. Tribe has studied the changes in the relationship between academic economics and UK public policy over the course of the 20th century. He wrote  a chapter on this in Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe's 2009 book The Road from Mont Pèlerin, and Tribe's conclusions are almost diametrically opposed to Blond's.

Blond references John Maynard Keynes as one British academic who did manage to have an impact on national and international government policy, suggesting that the difference between Keynes and contemporary scholars is the modern failure to produce big and useful political ideas. Interestingly, in his chapter in Mont Pèlerin, Keith Tribe discusses both Keynes' and his academic successors' political influence at length.

John Maynard Keynes was offered a seat in Westminster in 1939.
He turned it down, believing he could have a greater impact on public policy
as an academic.
As anyone working in academia will be entirely unsurprised to hear, Tribe argues that what has changed since the late 1970s (when Keynesian economics fell out of fashion with the political elite) is not the force, strength or value of the ideas of academics, but the fact that politicians no longer want to hear about research that doesn't support their ideological biases.

The 1970s saw the political ascendency of an economic philosophy based around a loose collection of economic, governmental and social ideas that are commonly referred to as "neoliberalism". Neoliberalism essentially advocates the shrinking of the public sector (any state-organised and collectively financed regulation or provision of social, economic or environmental goods), greater use of the price mechanism ("markets") to organise society, and more power and freedom for bankers, businesses and the owners of global corporations.

This philosophy was thought up by (academic) economists and political scientists in the early 20th century (most notably those in the Austrian School of Economics, the London School of Economics and later the University of Chicago). It remained relatively unpopular in the UK until the 1970s. During this era of the 20th century, Keynesianism (which advocates for a strong government role in economic planning) was all the rage both in Whitehall and in universities.

This situation changed with the election of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in 1979. At this time, the UK government was in some financial difficulty, having never fully recovered from the oil shocks earlier in the decade, and being haunted by the spectre of imminent IMF structural adjustment. Thatcher's Tories saw cost-cutting neoliberalist policies as the answer to these economic woes. Unfortunately, their political opinion was not backed up by the academy.

Neoliberalist thinking was not taken seriously within UK universities, and it made little impact on scholarly journals. Instead, its advocates tended to collect in non-academic think tanks, which produced pamphlets and economic journalism rather than scholarly research. A 'think tank' is an independent organisation set up for the purpose of policy research and advocacy. Many of the members of these 1980s think tanks had no background in scholarship beyond an undergraduate degree - the archetypal example being Nigel Lawson, a journalist with neoliberal tendencies who went on to become Margaret Thatcher's Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Perceiving academic commentary on their performance as unsuitably leftist, Thatcher's government cut off prior connections to university research and instead focused on building relationships with non-academic, but ideologically compatible, organisations such as the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute. Importantly, these think tanks told politicians what they wanted to hear. During the Thatcher years, their political power increased exponentially, and the influence of university research on government policy correspondingly waned.

In 1981, feeling ignored, 364 academic economists were prompted to sign a letter to The Times arguing that the government's actions threatened sharply rising unemployment and would lead to the death of UK manufacturing. They were right, but their temerity in opposing government policy led to an even greater rift between the academy and politicians, and ever more government dependence on independent, non-academic bodies to provide justification for their policies. The number of think tanks, offering both right- and left-wing views to successive tory and labour governments, exploded. It was the creation of a new political class.

Since 1979, neoliberalism has continued to be a dominant economic philosophy in the UK, with aspects of it (such as deregulation of banking) persisting throughout the "left wing" Labour years of 1997-2010. Under the current David Cameron administration, political neoliberalism has accelerated. Privatisation and state cutbacks are being implemented at breakneck speed, despite the questionable political mandate of a coalition government that had no pre-election manifesto.

Many academics have unequivocally stated their opinion on current government policies. In 2011, the Royal College of Nursing announced a vote of no confidence in government health policies, and Oxford University - perhaps the most 'establishment' of all UK higher education bodies - announced an unprecedented vote of no confidence in the coalition's "reckless, incoherent and incompetent" higher education policy. Other professional bodies have spoken too: head teachers passed a vote of no confidence in schools policy, and it was announced only today that another vote of no confidence (directed at health minister Jeremy Hunt) has been passed by the British Medical Association.

UK academics continue to produce a large body of work that is directly relevant to government policy. Unfortunately, much of this is ignored because it doesn't fit in with the government's economic orthodoxy. A random tranche of examples: social studies showing investment in early years social care and speech and language provision is important for preventing criminality in later life, and saves public money in the long term - yet funding for both these interventions has been cut by the coalition government; the finding that hospital cost-cutting is a key cause of patient neglect - yet £20 billion is still to be 'saved' from the NHS in England by 2015; analysis suggesting that welfare cuts, rather than creating incentives for "shirkers" to get a job, are retrogressive and disproportionately impact the working poor - yet welfare is cut by £10 billion a year; a study showing that rail privatisation has been grossly inefficient - yet we continue to sell off essential services. The list goes on.

Is the rift between government and the academy really the fault of academics? When it comes to Blond's piece, it seems that he may have taken his own advice and produced a big, value-laden idea that has little evidence to back it up. If UK academics really want to be listened to, perhaps they have to start ignoring the results of their research and instead become sycophants for the coalition's disastrous economic and social policies. Or maybe the disconnect between academia and policy shouldn't be solved by changing the way the academy works, but by changing the people in our government.

*it seems he either a) has no problem with universities in Northern Ireland, or b) thinks they're irrelevant.