Post-Brexit, we must make the case for scholarship, not just science…

Exit
Credit: Billy Frank

The vast majority of UK academics supported Remain.  The free movement of ideas and people is vital to what we do.  EU colleagues have brought expertise, students fresh perspectives, and, of course, the UK benefitted disproportionately from EU funding programmes.  Despite this near unanimity, there is a divide in UK academe that I fear Brexit will only sharpen.

Throughout the pre-referendum ferment and into the frankly frightening aftermath, I was one of many non-scientists who followed Scientists for EU.  It’s a great initiative – probably the most active and visible academic campaign.  Everyone knows (or at least says) science matters, right?  It’s easy for a campaigner on the doorstep, or a Minister on TV to talk the talk of celebrating UK science and the need to protect investment, if only as some kind of marker of international prestige when few others come to mind (whether they walk the walk is, of course, another thing…)

The problem is – and this is no criticism of Scientists for EU – that it’s not just science at stake here.  Of the ten most vulnerable subjects to EU research funding, six fall outside the STEM designation.  Beyond money, there’s an intellectual case too.  The lone scholar in the humanities is a prevalent but only a partial picture – and a potentially damaging one.  All disciplines thrive on collaboration and conversation, even if (and even when) our labour is often solitary.  Sustaining a meaningful, productive community of enquiry in the humanities means people meeting, talking, sharing, debating and generally pushing against the boundaries of what we think we know.  Scholarship is always a collective endeavour.  There is more we have in common within academe than divides us along disciplinary boundaries.

But leaving both those arguments aside, perhaps the most powerful case from a policy perspective for dealing with scholarship rather than just science is that, when it comes to solving problems, it’s the mix that matters.  In the UK, we’re just starting to think about how to deal with one of the most complex, divisive and unstable set of social, economic and political problems.  Whatever the toxic views that were peddled about experts in the lead-up to the referendum, we should surely be drawing on all the cognitive resources we can possibly access as we tackle its consequences.  That includes the humanities.  In my recent book, I argue that ‘policy is multi-dimensional, messy, uncertain, ambigious, shifting and contested because so too are the human beliefs, commitments, decisions and interactions at the core of the exercise of power.’  The humanities give us insights into and purchase on the inescapably human dimensions of life – including constitutional crises…

It worries me that in a context where STEM subjects are perceived as the only useful forms of knowledge, science becomes a proxy for the total research base as the impact of Brexit is evaluated and policy responses formulated.  There is an opportunity now for advocacy groups such as Scientists for EU to defend science not just in its own terms, but also as part of a broader collaborative effort to make the case for scholarship and evidence in the broadest sense (even if people in this country had indeed ‘had enough of experts‘ before the vote, they seem to be grasping for expertise now).  And it should be in scientists’ interests that the UK maintains a vibrant mix of intellectual activity.  Dynamic trans-, multi- and interdisciplinary work relies on active, sustainable, ambitious and confident disciplinary cultures.

This agenda also means historians, philosophers and linguists (i.e. all of us humanists) being willing to engage with greater commitment, and to take a platform in the way Scientists for EU have done.  My sense is we have much to learn from the ways they used social media to take an active role in public debate, including tweeting and vlogging on Facebook and Youtube.  We too need to be open to pressing not just for the value of our own fields, but for a genuinely rich ecosystem of enquiry and expertise.

No policy issue is ever purely technical and no one discipline can ever produce all the answers.  As scholars, we need to see science, social science and the arts and humanities as complementary forms of knowledge rather than as competing in some zero-sum policy and funding game.  Advocacy groups have a core purpose in their own domain, but that shouldn’t preclude some timely and targeted joint efforts.  It’s both/and rather than either/or.  Surely now of all moments we should be making common cause?

A Skeptical Note on Policy-Prescriptive Political Science

work shedJay Ulfelder’s recent ‘skeptical note’ on the ‘actionability’ of political science research makes some essential points about the problematic assumptions underpinning policy recommendations. In Britain, the Blairite manifesto pitch ‘what counts is what works’ subdues the complexities of research method that might, at best, conclude ‘what works here’ (with further caveats about target population and other central aspects of the design).
I’m not sure, however, that scholars of any discipline should therefore refrain from proposing recommendations or, even more cautiously, withdraw from offering expert advice.

One of the important problems Ulfelder identifies is the uncertainties that are involved in the space between research and policy. How can a scholar answer the ‘so what?’ question that follows from any finding?  There are two issues that we can unpack here.

The first is the inevitability, indeed, the necessity, of uncertainty. Policy is messy, unstable and contested because it involves human beings and their beliefs, habits, commitments, decisions and relationships – in the exercise of power, the exertion of influence, in policy implementation and debate. Instead of searching for the definitive research design to address all the assumptions about the transferability of findings – or indeed, just leaving it to ‘elected officials and bureaucrats’ to do the interpretation – we should be bringing together different disciplines with complementary insights. Given the uncertainties of anything involving human beings, the humanities need to be in there too, rather than ignored as irrelevant, if not ornamental.

The other issue is the ‘so what?’ question. I agree it’s hard for scholars to come up with policy recommendations, but that’s at least in part due to their lack of experience of policymaking in practice. In the UK, there is far less interchange between higher education and government than in the USA and the academic career is still pretty intolerant of periods spent in other settings, something that needs to change. Taking a look over the fence and trying to prescribe policy interventions based on research designed for academic purposes seems foolish at best, if not rather arrogant as well as misguided. Humanities scholars may be largely ignored, but we can often be too concerned to preserve our integrity by not allowing policy concerns to ‘sully’ our work.

This seems a rather self-defeating formula. Policymakers don’t get access to an ecosystem of expertise. Scholars remain on the far side of the fence lamenting the intellectual illiteracy of political rhetoric and decision-making.

But does it need to be this way? I don’t think so. But there’s no easy policy prescription for fixing it, as it involves major shifts in perspective among scholars – towards actively looking for cross-disciplinary approaches – and in policy communities that often have limited conceptions of ‘relevant’ evidence.

Being honest in response to a request for expert advice is not just about admitting the limits of one’s own expertise but also the limits of one’s own discipline. It’s the mix that matters, but it’s not easy for the expert to admit it.

Dart-Throwing Chimp

My sometimes-colleague Michael Horowitz wrote a great piece for War on the Rocks last week on what “policy relevance” means for political scientists who study international affairs, and the different forms that relevance can take. Among the dimensions of policy relevance he calls out is the idea of “policy actionability”:

Policy actionability refers to a recommendation that is possible to implement for the target of the recommendation. Most academic work is not policy actionable, fundamentally. For example, implications from international relations research are things such as whether countries with high male-to-female ratios are more likely to start military conflicts or that countries that acquire nuclear weapons become harder to coerce.

As Michael notes, most scholarship isn’t “actionable” in this way, and isn’t meant to be. In my experience, though, there is plenty of demand in Washington and elsewhere for policy-actionable research on international affairs, and there is a subset of scholars…

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History as a resource for the future?

Selling history to policymakers is a challenge, particularly in a political culture that prizes numbers above all else.  As historians, we can pitch the relevance of our work in a number of ways: writing policy papers (and blogs), speaking on platforms provided by the media and by political parties, collaborating with think tanks, responding to consultations, among others.  The the ‘temptation to assert the importance of one’s discipline to the making of “better” policy’ is hard to resist’ [1].  But however cogently we press our case for relevance, there’s a limit to how effective we can be in influencing policymaking – as long as we’re still ‘pitching’ from the outside.
Historians need to be more than purveyors of the past.  We can provide judiciously assembled and intellectually stimulating accounts of policy challenges encountered and addressed (or not) that shed light on the dilemmas of the present.  But our reach will be limited unless we can show that history offers not just access to the past but fresh ways of seeing.  Thinking historically means inspecting our assumptions about how issues are connected and what options are open to us.  It invites us to consider how we frame our questions and approach our responses to them.  Doing so means working as an insider.
But we seem unable or unwilling to dislodge the belief that history is just ‘stuff’: the litany of names and dates assumed to be the field’s contribution to human knowledge.  Nor have we generally been inclined to give up the privileges of the academic outsider: to be able to inform, critique and admonish without having to be involved in the messy and complex negotiations involved in policymaking.
By responding to the Public Administration Select Committee’s inquiry into civil service skills, History and Policy provides a welcome challenge to ‘history as stuff’.  History as a resource for the future highlights how well the network’s activities inside Whitehall have been received (‘engaging’ and ‘enjoyable’ are notable judgements on the part of senior officials).  A potential collaboration with Civil Service Learning sounds promising, as it points to the potential for embedding history in the training and professional development of officials.  There is a good case to restore a ‘history core’ to civil service training.  As the response states, it may help attune officials to the importance of context, enable the more informed use of comparison, and encourage them to turn routinely to historical materials as they brief, advise and inform.
The response is spot on in highlighting the importance of historical skills.  Developing proficiency and confidence in primary source search and analysis should help extend the range of material on which officials can draw.
But historical skills can do more than make ‘substantive historical content’ available to policymakers.
The risk is that historical skills are only deployed when historical ‘content’ is deemed relevant: often in the preliminary phases of policy formulation, when the scope of background research is fairly open.  History can easily just be historical perspective: an interesting and thought-provoking look backwards.  It’s illuminating but not influential.
That’s what sounds alarm bells for me in the warm and enthusiastic comments of the senior officials quoted in the consultation response.  History fascinates, it engages the intellect and the imagination.  A concern to ‘capture’ the learning from the workshops, to share it more widely and to ‘create opportunities for civil servants to collaborate more closely with historians in relevant fields’ is commendable, and a real testament to History and Policy’s work.
But, like professional development courses more generally, it’s a challenge to translate them from the seminar room into the office.  Even the best and most stimulating can probably only kick off a process of reflection and change in our practice.  When the historians have gone back to their universities and the officials to their departments, what next?
We need organisations to bridge between academe and policy, but we also need historians on the inside.  Secondments and exchanges should be valued within an academic career, and historians should be sought-after experts for teams making, reviewing and implementing policy.  History is not just a repository of ‘stuff’, a lost property office whose doors are opened every so often for the fleeting intellectual engagement that exploration offers.  History is indeed a resource for the future, but we need to explain how – and then show how.

[1] Sylvia K. Kraemer, “Policy Advisors: Historians and Making Policy,” in Public History: Essays from the Field, ed. James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia (Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 2004), pp. 218-9.

Historian with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – a job with a history

Last week, the post of Historian with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was advertised (with the strapline ‘If you’re passionate about the past and excited about the future, consider a role as a Historian in Whitehall’).  Historians in government are a very rare breed in Britain, at least in historical roles (historians have been taken on as generalists since the civil service professionalised – and came under pointed criticism as ‘amateurs’ for it from the late 1950s).  By contrast, historians working as historians are part of state and federal/provincial government structures in the USA and Canada; the US Society for History in the Federal Government has been around for over 30 years.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that the grass is greener for colleagues across the pond.  Being a historian in government doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bringing historical thinking into the corridors of power (even walking said corridors doesn’t equal admission to the offices where the major policy decisions are taken).  The North American experience suggests recognition as a specialist can be a distinctly mixed blessing.  An expert’s influence can easily be limited to those questions relating directly to the area of expertise…

The role of the historian in government is often concerned with research and the management of records: cataloguing papers; editing documents and producing official histories for publication; responding to queries; writing briefing papers on historical topics.  In countries such as Canada and New Zealand, historians are also expert contributors to processes that address grievances and claims relating to the treatment of indigenous peoples.

The currently advertised job certainly fits with this editorial and curatorial profile.  But the FCO is a particularly interesting case, because a previous historian at the department made the transition from editor of official documents to historical adviser to the Minister.

Rohan Butler Credit: FCO
Rohan Butler Credit: FCO

Rohan Butler (1917-1996) worked at the Foreign Office from 1944, while also a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford.  He became Senior Editor of the Documents on British Foreign Policy in 1955, and, in 1959, he was commissioned to produce a history of the Abadan Crisis as part of a Whitehall initiative (‘funding experience’) to learn lessons from the past.

Peter Beck’s careful scholarship has revealed the work of historians at the Treasury and Foreign Office during this experiment.  Butler, however, managed to gain a position of influence as a historian (the Abadan history was finished in 1962 and Butler went on to become historical adviser to successive Foreign Secretaries until 1982) – something his Treasury colleagues never did.

Beck states that the Abadan history ‘fed into, guided, and influenced on-going discussions and reviews within Whitehall by juxtaposing the lessons of history, contemporary realities, and possible new directions for both foreign policy and methods.’[1]   Beck somewhat underplay’s Butler’s success, stating that it’s difficult to ascribe a ‘clear-cut outcome’ to the history.  But Butler’s work was informing the highest levels of decisionmaking.  He was, effectively, a policy adviser as well as a historian.

The job description for today’s FCO historian mentions ‘responding to requests for historical information and advice from Ministers, officials and the public’, but the prospect for a role such as Butler’s seems remote.  The salary of £26,363 – £32,834 is well below the range for special advisers and points, perhaps, to a role seen as ‘back-office’ rather than ‘core business’.

We may today lament that history has little influence on policymaking – it might be worth looking back at Butler for inspiration: a historian on the inside.

[1] Beck, ‘The Lessons of Abadan and Suez for British Foreign Policymakers in the 1960s’, p. 545.

See also: Beck, Using history, making British policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

NB: Butler’s authoritative memorandum on the Katyn Massacre (produced in 1972 and printed for internal circulation in 1973) is now in the public domain with original footnotes and annexes.

The ‘endless rustle of the in-tray’: finding time for historical thinking

Rohan Butler served as the Foreign Secretary’s historical adviser from 1963-82 and was one of the leading figures in the civil service’s post-war experiment in incorporating historical perspective into the business of policymaking.  His neat and evocative phrase ‘the endless rustle of the in-tray’ (cited by Peter Beck in his illuminating study of these experiments, in the the Treasury and Foreign Office, 1950-76) points to the difficulty of finding time for long view, big issue thinking when operational demands always seem to take precedence.  This means that in times of crisis (Butler was writing about Abadan), the need for ‘action under pressure’ cannot accommodate the considered thinking necessary for good decision-making.

The institutional culture of the government department – and the broader civil service – seems from Beck’s description (based on extensive archival research) to account in large measure for this operational mind-set.  But are we any better at “resisting the rustle” now, in universities, in businesses and other organisations?

Doing this blog is one way I try to step back and look for perspectives and connections that I’d otherwise miss.  And I struggle to find the time to do so, even though my express purpose is linking history with political and public life!  So sitting down and writing this now means consciously blocking my ears, knowing that the to-do list is growing as I type.

Self-help books often recommend setting aside some time on a regular basis for doing more strategic thinking (don’t turn the email on, ignore the phone etc.)  But such good intentions are unlikely to last.  And my sense is that keeping historical thinking going means making it part of “business”.  We often think that “diarising” something is a way of signalling its importance and securing its status in our lives.  But I think that tends instead to compartmentalise it, making it separate from our lives: moveable, interchangeable, containable.  In policy, this would entail integrating historical forms of enquiry into the broader process by which policy is developed, rather than seeking historical “evidence” as a bolt-on (if at all).  I think this approach has wider relevance too.  At its simplest, it could just be asking historical questions about how an issue’s emerged or the context for a decision.

But for now, the ear-muffs must come off…

Public history and public policy: A view from across the pond

A re-blog of my recent post on the National Council on Public History’s Public History Commons, History@Work (comments welcome – please add to the original):

Looking from across the pond, the maturity and scale of public history as a discipline and a sector in the US is a striking phenomenon.  The narrative is well-established: the crisis in the academic job market; the emergence of new contexts for historical employment, in preservation, education and regeneration; the entrepreneurship of universities in structuring the supply of skilled professionals through new programmes emphasising workplace skills and experience.

The story is of course rather longer and more complex, nuanced and interesting than this, as I discovered during my comparative research on public history in different national settings.  In the UK, the contrast could not be more marked. The academic discipline here has also experienced periods of contraction and pressure.  But we have not seen the ‘push’ factor from higher education in terms of imagining (and foregrounding) the many pathways a historical education could lead to (and hence also what historical education could mean).  Nor is there much evidence of the ‘pull’ factor from employment markets such as government or business for historically-oriented roles.

The absence of such drivers for development and innovation is, I think, one element of the explanation for why public history in the UK remains rather tentative, even marginal, gaining some traction only in a few universities and remaining preoccupied with a narrower agenda than the American field.  Apart from a small number of pioneering MA courses, public history tends to be represented only by a single module in a ‘mainstream’ history programme.

One of the connections we have largely missed in the UK – to our detriment – is that between history and policy.  And here the US example is illuminating.   There have been some attempts to inform policy making–most notably the History and Policy network, which has done vital work in putting the cause of better public policy on the historian’s radar and raising the profile of the study of the past with politicians and the media.  These efforts have not, however, been located within a broader public history field.  One consequence of this, it seems to me, is that such efforts draw on the methodological models of academic history rather than seeking to create user-oriented and collaborative alternatives.

The importance of such alternatives is persuasively put by Duncan Macrae, Jnr and Dale Wittington in their 1997 work on expert advice for policy choice.  As few policy problems can be addressed by one expert community alone, cooperation and division of labour across disciplinary boundaries is needed to equip the decision-maker with the best possible advice. Communication must run, they argue, not only between experts but also between experts and users – and in both directions.  Macrae and Whittington draw attention to the benefits of having instruction in public policy analysis built into training in the basic disciplines, so that graduates are able to translate their specialism into salient policy advice (whatever the context they may work in).  History is only given a passing reference, but the work has much to offer the wandering public historian with an interest in policy.

I hope that as the academic history community in the UK develops its undergraduate and graduate programmes in public history, we will be open to such possibilities.  There is much we can learn from the US in this regard.  We should also take note of how early in the development of the professional discipline a sense of the importance of historians’ contribution to democratic institutions and processes emerged (for example, Benjamin Shambaugh’s School of Iowa Research Historians).

I am very much looking forward to hearing Shambaugh’s biographer and former NCPH President, Professor Rebecca Conard, speak at this year’s Higher Education Academy conference on Teaching History in Higher Education.  Public History can and should be so much more than museums and archives, heritage and commemoration, important as those dimensions are.  It is, in Alfred J. Andrea’s words, the application of ‘the dimension of historical time in helping to meet the practical and intellectual needs of society at large’.  And that is a definition worth aspiring to.

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.

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?

We must continue to try to understand the policy process…

…we must continue to try to understand the policy process – however irrational or uncontrollable it may seem to be – as a crucial first step towards trying to secure effective policy making.

The imperative for constructive engagement put succinctly by Michael Hill in The Public Policy Process, 5th Ed (2009).  It’s much easier to say what you’re against than to try to be part of the process – with all the risks that entails.