Making a good START?

Knowledge brokering19 Feb 2010Alexander von Rosenbach

After reflecting on the themes introduced in day one of the conference, on day two we begin to dig a bit deeper into the challenges of the policy-academic divide.

One of the most pressing challenges being discussed here in New Orleans is how to translate the work of academia into something a policymaker can utilise in policy decisions. Specifically, social scientists wanting to create relevant research often face the task of ‘Measuring the Unmeasurable’ in order to present hard evidence on complex, confusing or inaccessible subject areas. Such was the title of one panel held today.

The assembled panellists came from various conflict-related disciplines and all presented on topics that are highly policy-relevant but challenging to quantify – measuring the successes and shortcomings of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs); measuring terrorism’s political effects; measuring civilian casualties of war; and measuring human trafficking. Interestingly, all the panellists agreed with the argument that numbers (measurements) are central to informed decision-making. Moreover, there was also a lot of head-nodding amongst the panellists when one author (Peter Krause, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) suggested that the objective of the academic in this context is to improve the numbers (if even just a little) in order to allow for better policy decisions to be made.

However, the surprising thing was that few of the panellists actually had a plan for translating their policy-relevant research into the realm of actual policy-making. In fact, when I asked the panellists to discuss this subject more explicitly, one academic even pretended to dive behind the podium, such was her aversion to grappling with the subject! This reveals just how difficult academics perceive the task of ‘relevancy’ to be and how much work remains to be done.

Headway is, however, being made. Several different panels over the last two days have mentioned relative success of the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Consortium. START is a US Homeland Security Center of Excellence program based at the University of Maryland. Its position as a government-funded organisation that is embedded within the academic world allows it to generate rigorous academic research (in this case on the ‘unmeasurable’ subject of terrorism), then fast-track it to policy-makers. This has proven a reasonably effective shortcut, avoiding the risk of research losing its relevancy while negotiating the notoriously slow path to academic publication.

Of course, START is not the perfect model. Among other objections, academics are very wary of being so closely associated with government, for fear of having their research interests transformed into ‘mission-focused’ projects that serve specific government interests or agendas. This is particularly the case on subjects – such as those of this morning panel – where there are few ‘measureable’ facts and a high degree of politicisation

However, there are many other less-politicised academic disciplines where START-like mechanisms (and their explicit government links) would be less controversial and should be explored as part of the solution to bridging the policy-academic divide.