Policy influence – playing neutral or taking sides?

DECI-3 Blog

Policy influence – playing neutral or taking sides?

By Ricardo Ramirez, DECI-3.

All DECI partners are in the business of conducting research with a practical purpose: namely influencing policy so that impact can be manifested at scale.  Most research teams are well aware of the policy context; they live in it and have ongoing contact with its protagonists and the many intermediaries. The following example of policy coalitions will be familiar to some readers.  The blog Integration & Implementation Insights released an entry by Karin Ingold[1] entitled “When are scientists neutral experts or strategic policy makers?”

The blog illustrates three types of ‘subsystems’ in which policy is made:

  • Collaborative subsystem: at least two coalitions exist, and while they have different opinions, they are interested in overcoming them. In this case, science can mitigate between two opposing coalitions; meaning that there is a chance that compromise can be found. This process allows for brokerage by scientific experts as neutral actors, especially because they are outside of any coalition. This position conceivably allows for an evidence-based policy outcome.
  • Adversarial subsystem: the existing coalitions do not trust each other and they rarely cooperate; they remain in competition. In this case, it may be possible that the animosity between the coalitions is too high to allow for any compromise. In other words, there is no room for knowledge brokerage. In this situation, researchers may align with an existing coalition and defend the facts and conclusions of evidence much in the way that other political actors may pick and choose the evidence that suits their case (i.e. often, political actors use scientific results for their own purposes).
  • Unitary subsystem: formed by one united, homogenous coalition where there are almost no opponents. This situation may be typical when new fields of inquiry are just arising, so positions and coalitions have not yet emerged. In this case, there is only one single, large coalition which in turn means that there is no need for brokerage or advocacy by researchers, who may act simply as information providers.

This understanding is of relevance to DECI in mentoring research teams to map out a context and avoid making assumptions about playing a neutral role and/or making choices of when to provide evidence if the window of policy opportunity allows it.

[1] This is an excerpt from the article: Ingold, K. and Gschwend, M. (2014). Science in Policy-Making: Neutral Experts or Strategic Policy-Makers? West European Politics, 37, 5: 993-1018. Online (DOI): 10.1080/01402382.2014.920983