Complementarity between disciplines 2: policy advice

In the domain of public policy advice, the case for an approach based on the complementarity of disciplines and professions should be a strong one.  Only very few policy problems lie within the domain of one community, as Macrae and Whittington emphasise in their work on Expert Advice for Policy Choice.  Cooperation and division of labour – involving reading each other’s literature, contributing jointly to technical debates and working together on projects – should be good practice in marshalling expertise, which can then be fed into an iterative process of formulating and assessing policy alternatives.

Economists, statisticians and social researchers have established specialist pathways in the civil service, suggesting that the range of professional inputs into policy development is rather limited.  Admittedly, it emerges that Macrae and Whittington have the quantitatively-oriented disciplines in mind, and so the structure would fit with their model in that sense.  However, the book does raise the question as to whether a broader and more genuinely interdisciplinary approach would be to the benefit of our public policy.

To give just one example, political mapping and scenario development would be greatly enhanced by a historical mindset.  In essence, they’re describing a version of Neustadt and May‘s “placement“: the development of a contextualised understanding of actors (both individuals and organisations) to enable their later positions and actions to be anticipated in a more informed and nuanced way.

There is much to be taken from the Macrae/Whittington book in terms of challenging the inclinations of the “basic disciplines” to regard “user” values and priorities as of less relevance or importance than those of their own communities.  The call for responsiveness and collaboration in addressing the questions posed by policymakers is well-made.  But there is much more to be done to convince not only policymakers, but also the specialist groups that currently have a privileged position with regards to policy advice, that historians have an important, complementary contribution to make.

Complementarity in Higher Education: what does it mean for disciplines?

One of the most important concepts in the Wilson Review of University-Business Collaboration is complementarity – the idea that different institutions with different histories, different cultures, missions and identities, can play roles that support, reinforce and enhance each other in the pursuit of economic as well as social and cultural benefit.

A sector shaped by a sense of collaborative – rather than competitive – advantage would emphasise complementarity, leading universities to recognise and celebrate the strengths of others, and cross-refer businesses to the most appropriate HE partner. The potential prize is a bigger ‘pie’ to share, rather than an increasingly vicious scrap to divide up the existing pastry-encased dish.

This will be the theme for my talk tomorrow at the HE Beyond 2015 conference. In my 20 minutes I will be sticking to the corporate level, but with my new academic role I’m becoming more interested in the disciplinary dimension of policy debates. So when I spoke to the Association of Business Schools policy roundtable last month I suggested there was potential in thinking about issues such as local economic development through the lens of academic subjects. How can disciplines as distinctive forms of knowledge work together in tackling important problems, such as building (economically, socially) sustainable communities, or supporting enterprise and business growth?

Jon Wilson highlighted today at the first of the ippr/King’s Policy Unit seminars on the Future of HE that there’s often a disconnect between how management conceive of and express the purpose of higher education and how academics do so. In theory at least, there is real potential for complementarity between the ‘corporate’ and the ‘academic’ (as a disciplinary practitioner) in areas such as local economic development.

University leaders can set strategy, defining a framework that values engagement with and commitment to local impact in whatever forms fit the institution’s mission and the community’s needs. Subject area leaders such as Heads of School can then use that framework to help structure their thinking in terms of disciplinary activity – not as a constraint on creativity but the opposite, as a license for imagining and reconceiving what forms that academic endeavour could take if inspired by the idea of local impact.

I wonder how often those ‘conversations’ between the corporate and the academic dimensions of university life take place? Or do we instinctively resort to models of irreconcilability between the two? The Wilson Review highlighted the need to challenge outmoded ideas of the unbridgeable cultural divide between universities and business and debunk the myths of the ‘unresponsive university’ and the ‘unreasonable business’. Do we also need to turn our attention inwards and look for greater complementarity between corporate and academic aspirations and endeavours? This is challenging for both parties, but the potential rewards are great.

Most universities seek national and international profile and standing, at least in select areas. These goals can be compatible – not in tension – with significant and multi-faceted engagement at local level; we can be world-class at local impact, and that mission can bring global connections, for example with collaborations in teaching and research.  What is needed is commitment and imagination, both at corporate and at discipline level, to find the points of integration between local and national agendas.


Afterthought: Does it make those ‘conversations’ easier if the corporate leaders share a disciplinary background with a group of academics?

Public philosophy 2: experts and climate change

Once we accept the expert authority of climate science, we have no basis for supporting the minority position.

So argues Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, in ‘The Stone’, a forum within the New York Times Opinionator section for contemporary philosophy ‘on issues both timely and timeless’.  In essence, he’s doing some public philosophy, applying ‘critical thinking to information and events that have appeared in the news.’

His position is based on the ‘logic of appeals to the authority of experts’.  If we accept who the experts are on a particular topic, and that our own status as non-experts excludes us from adjudicating disputes among said experts, then we must also recognise that we have no basis for rejecting the truth of any claim that is backed by a strong consensus within that community.

In the case of climate change, neither the existence of an expert academic field of climate science nor that of a strong consensus that human activities are causing the planet to warm can be challenged.  So, argues Gutting, the only way a non-expert can legitimately challenge climate change is by proposing that climate science ‘lacks the scientific status needed to be taken seriously in our debates about public policy’.  In passing, he notes that such a critique – though unlikely to find much traction in the case of climate science – may well prove more promising for ‘various sub-disciplines of the social sciences’.

Let’s say we accept this, but we then arrive at a problem.  How does expert knowledge translate into policy?  What is its role?  As Gutting acknowledges, scientific conclusions don’t have absolute authority in democratic debates, though his reasoning is based on logic rather than questions of accountability, that is, the fact of global warming is exists separate from and therefore doesn’t imply any particular policy response to that fact.

This is a sequential model – the experts generate consensus then effectively turn the body of knowledge over to ‘us’ to make the value judgements their science cannot and formulate policy accordingly.  I’m not sure even in the so-called ‘hard’ sciences that it works like this, but even if it does, the process of policymaking is itself one that calls for forms of expertise.  Returning to climate change, the importance of people’s behaviour, their beliefs, practices and ways of making meaning of their lives, is being increasingly discussed.  Once we get into the humanities and social sciences, the disciplines with much to offer in this dimension, we get into highly contested debates, we lose the consensus to which Gutting refers.

But rather than seeing this as a problem (where a perceived lack of scientific status leads to a lesser status in policy debates), can we instead recognise a process to which these forms of expertise have distinctive and important contributions to make?  Can the lack of consensus be productive?  Policymaking involves reconciling interests, beliefs and evidence that sometimes overlap, sometimes conflict.  It involves holding in mind at the same time different levels of human organisation and considering how those levels interact, how policy might affect that interaction.  It’s conditioned by institutions, with all their complexity of structures and relationships.  It’s many other things besides, but as a process it could surely benefit from forms of expertise that fundamentally engage with those kind of issues.  A sequential model has its attractions, but the role of expertise in policymaking isn’t that simple, because policymaking isn’t simple.  Question is, can the humanities and social sciences turn complexity and lack of consensus into a strength?