Sausages, evidence and policymaking: The role of universities in a post-truth world

By Professor Jonathan Grant

From Tony Blair’s declaration that ‘What counts is what works’ in 1997, to David Cameron’s vow to ‘put evidence at the heart of what we do’ in 2015, political commitments to use research in policymaking have been the norm in recent decades. Even the Ministry of Justice under Michael Gove, whose belief in expertise was, to say the least, subject to some scrutiny last year, promised to ‘put evidence at the heart of what we do’.

But translating research evidence into policy is messy and complicated. Indeed, the well-known aphorism that ‘law and sausages are two things you do not want to see being made’ applies to public policy, too. It is not just evidence that goes into the policymaking machine – resources, habit, experience, judgement and values are also key ingredients. But these ingredients, and the skills required to incorporate them, are often not valued or abundant in universities.

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A significant body of work has shown that the kind of evidence universities produce, and the ways in which they try to apply it, means that attempts to convert research into policy are frequently like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. But while this work is useful as far as it goes, it may now be out of date. 2016 will go down as one of the most turbulent years in western democracies, with the Brexit and US presidential votes signalling a democratic revolution against the status quo – a revolution that could be seen as a threat to universities’ role in policymaking, or indeed a threat to universities’ very role in society.

Social media has undoubtedly contributed to these events, although just how much is probably unknowable. That so many people get their news through platforms like Facebook and Twitter has many upsides, but there are clear downsides, too: what is shared on there is not regulated and doesn’t have to adhere to professional journalistic standards. It makes the dissemination of false or misleading information – lies, to you and me – easier than it has ever been.

Speaking about the rise of Trumpism, Robert Daniels, the President of Johns Hopkins University, has said: ‘On the core issue of the role of ideas, of facts, and whether they matter in contemporary political discourse, we are observing something that is deeply unsettling’. He went on to question whether universities, both in the US and internationally, had been ‘successful in mustering up analysis [and] policy recommendations that are able to infiltrate the political process and bring our practical ideas to bear’.

His comments recall the ongoing debate taking place this side of the Atlantic about the role of experts in public life. But sometimes lost among the white noise of that debate is actual data. In August last year, the Institute for Government published a representative survey of over 2,000 people in the UK which found that over 80% of respondents thought it was important that politicians consult experts when making difficult decisions, and that those decisions should be based on objective evidence. Interestingly, the proportion positively responding to these two questions increased marginally between 2014 and 2016. What is more, there was very little difference between those who said they voted to leave the EU and those who said they wanted to remain.

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Rather than people having had enough of experts, I think the issue may be that people are conflating experts and elites. There is a big difference between someone who has a deep knowledge about a particular subject being asked for an opinion, and someone with a superficial knowledge airing their views to a broad group of people via social media or other outlets.

The first thing universities must do, as a sector, is challenge the lies, untruths and ill-informed opinions we hear in public discourse. We need to up our game and defend the fundamental values that universities stand for. Truth matters – and we should say that very loudly and unashamedly.

Second, despite having achieved a great deal of success through programmes for widening university participation and improving social mobility, there is still significantly more that needs to be done – and it should be an urgent priority for all education providers. In pursuing such an agenda, we can begin to actively engage with communities which are not as civically engaged, breaking down barriers of both elitism and expertise.

This in turn will encourage the co-production of policy with affected communities, a well-established yet under-utilised concept. We need to revisit this agenda, using universities as brokers in creating new, engaged and transparent ways to formulate and deliver public policy.

The importance of this was illustrated long ago by, of all things, Cumbrian sheep farmers in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In a series of famous studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Brian Wynne explored both the farmers’ beliefs and the scientific consensus of the time about the effects of the disaster on Cumbria, which had experienced some of the heaviest fallout radiation in Western Europe. Government scientists predicted that the land contamination would dissipate quickly, while the farmers argued that they knew better, based on their familiarity with, and specialist knowledge of, the topography of the area. In the end, the policies and regulations devised to mitigate the problems caused by the radiation were widely viewed as being too general and too difficult to implement properly, a situation that Wynne argued could’ve been avoided had there been substantive collaboration between the scientists (the accepted experts) and the farmers (the lay experts). Wynne’s study helped to raise awareness of the ‘contextual’ public understanding of science.

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So, where does that leave us? Well, it suggests that post-truth politics is actually a multiple-truths politics. Those ‘truths’ may or may not be anchored in evidence or formal expertise, but how they are perceived makes all the difference. Universities, as centres for recognised experts, need to acknowledge this and adapt – or else we risk becoming irrelevant.

We must advocate – and I use that word deliberately – the contribution that universities are already making, while at the same time refrain from blaming others for any growing anti-intellectualism. Instead, reflect on what we do and how we do it. This will inevitably require us to diversify our educational offerings. But ultimately, we need to acknowledge that multi-truth politics is about multiple disciplines bringing different perspectives to bear on pressing issues. Like making sausages, the policymaking process will be even more messy and complicated for universities in this new climate.

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This article is in part based on a keynote lecture Professor Grant gave to the Society for Research into Higher Education (video).

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