Britain Needs to Think Bigger | European Current Events
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by Phillip Blond

When it comes to thinking up the brightest ideas in the world of public policy analysis, the light bulb always seems to be blazing above an American head.

Just think of Nudge (Thaler and Sunstein), Black Swans (Taleb) or the term 'Predistribution' coined by Jacob Hacker. Malcolm Gladwell, who brought us The Tipping Point and Outliers, was actually born in England but as he emigrated to Canada at the age of six, it's hard to claim credit for him.

British academics, in contrast, rarely seem to make an impact. Academically, British professors are world leaders -- but in terms of public policy they rarely supply the big idea.

If they do come up with something, it tends to be the grand historical narrative -- think Niall Ferguson -- which, while compelling, doesn't have policy impact.

This matters because if the British are world academic leaders, the failure to parlay that into our own systems of governance and public service delivery is at best a terrible waste of talent, and at worst contributes to the British failure to allow our ideas to have a global influence. After all, think of the soft power that Keynes was able to leverage on the behalf of Britain between the wars.

[ Recommended Reading List: Ideas that Nudged Governments ]

There are several reasons why British academia is so poor at all this.

The first is that there is no obvious institutional conduit to public policy impact or ideas. We simply lack the hybrid institutions that other countries have. Funding and research arrangements force academics inward and even if the current research exercise stresses external impact there are no clear criteria for its assessment and hence no firm direction for how such impact is to be focused or rewarded.

When we do have large studies, funded by research councils for example, they are often too big to be useful and too value-free and evidence-biased to make any determinable impact on politics.

Let me explain the last remark: politics is an ideas-based not an evidence-based activity. And evidence only has impact when associated with and organized by transformative ideas. In the absence of such, we simply have descriptions that are too extended and too obvious in implication to break through, or transform, mainstream British politics.

Outside of internal debates on micro issues, I struggle to think of any serious, sustained or systemic impact by British academics on public policy.

British academics tend not to be culturally suited to politics and policy impact. They are largely segregated from other middle-class professions and have created a mind and value set that, while successful internally, in terms of external politics is both ideological and largely utopic.

This approach cannot key in with politics or policy as it is practised. As a rule (and there are many exceptions) most academics are soft left in orientation and conventional in terms of how they think society should be organized. Their ideas are often little more than the state should spend more or regulate more.

In addition, our politics or public policy departments tend to stress vast systemic forces over which individual innovation or initiative can exercise very little effect. There is almost no intellectual recognition of the role that ideas or individuals play in the constitution of history and the decisions made.

To put it another way, most social scientists think of events rather like the way the Greeks thought about fate -- everything that happens is inevitable and there is no possibility of new ideas or human beings shifting or transforming such vast forces. Hence description rather than injunction becomes the proper academic task. If we take these cultural and institutional points together it seems clear what must be done. We as a nation need to create new hybrid institutions outside of universities. Short of that, long-term fellowships within think-tanks and departments of state by academics would be a good start.

America benefits because it has a vast number of institutions organized around ideas and it funds them all properly. Money is directed primarily at ideas and secondarily at marshalling the evidence to support them.

I am not arguing for this approach to the exclusion of evidence-led work -- but I am arguing for its higher importance. I am all for evidence-led work on the basis of whether an idea delivers or not, but the belief that just evidence will give you an idea gets the world wrong.

First comes the idea then the execution and then, and only then, the judgment as to its efficacy. That is politics. To do it the other way round is to misunderstand the object at issue

So British universities and their funding bodies should stop pumping enormous sums into producing a vast scale of work that literally nobody uses. Instead, they should direct smaller sums of money into hybrid institutions and endeavour to either foster them or create them if they don't exist.

As to the cultural point, British thinkers must escape from the terrible post-modern apologetics that seem to have descended upon them.

American thinkers can think because they believe they are describing universal truths that can apply across different frames and distinct cultures. Whereas British thinkers pride themselves on particulars where, between endless caveats, they just might -- if you are lucky -- say something that applies to one tiny circumscribed field.

British thinkers who have ambitions to influence debate need to change their culture -- they would do well to learn from our historians who are world-class and who make sweeping systemic and universal accounts that cross not just space but time.

British policy thinkers need to do this in the present -- they need to lead with ideas and make them universally applicable across the piste, and then they need to marshal evidence and example for them; that would make politicians and people interested. They would finally be impacting politics.

Phillip Blond is Director of ResPublica, the British think-tank

 

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"Britain Needs to Think Bigger"

 

 

 

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