A symposium organised by the Philomathia Forum brought academics together to discuss the contribution of social sciences to address major public policy questions for the coming decades.
What might be identified as some of the big public policy challenges of our age? Energy, food security, poverty, public health, conservation?
Today Cambridge academics from across the social sciences and humanities came together to discuss the contribution of Cambridge research to address some of these challenges.
Established research programmes at Cambridge that cross disciplines in order to tackle big policy issues were highlighted – such as in energy, conservation, food security and public health. Delegates also heard about new programmes that focus on contemporary ideas and processes in relation to public policy such as Big Data.
What is the role of academics in addressing public policy issues?
First, we learnt it is important to take a historical perspective on contemporary social problems. Using the example of the transition from the poor law to the welfare state in the early twentieth century, which was an early example of data collection and statistical analysis shaping public policy, Professor Simon Deakin showed how, despite advances in social science methods, little progress had been made to date, in resolving some long standing public policy issues. Our failure to ‘solve’ policy problems such as housing, poverty and ill-health shows how important it is to study the craft or process of policy-making, the subject of the new Strategic Research Initiative on Public Policy.
“It is not enough for researchers to present their findings to policy makers and expect them simply to implement them. Policy making is a process and if academics want to influence it they have to understand how it works,” commented Simon Deakin, co-chair of the Strategic Research Initiative on Public Policy.
Second, academics make a contribution in seeking out the underlying causes of complex social problems; in short, to seek out ‘the causes of the causes of the causes’ of today’s issues.
Professor Larry King showed delegates how political economy, with an emphasis on the governance of public health, explained variations in life expectancy between different groups and over time in post-communist states. Studying decisions made at political economy level leads researchers to go beyond the question of ‘what works?’ and ask, ‘what works for whom?’
Third, there was an appreciation of interdisciplinary work in solving practical problems, and an emphasis on the primacy of data and knowledge being brought to bear on significant issues. For example, researchers on Big Data are looking at the contribution of large data sets to public policy as well as analysing how data, including performance data and also social data, is being used to steer public policy and how citizens engage with policy makers. In the digital humanities research network, researchers explore how we as individuals connect with data and digital processes and ask questions about the ethics and values underlying how data is built up and used in order to direct public institutions. At the Behaviour and Health Research Unit researchers focus on generating evidence, including on behavioural science and ‘nudge’ approaches to changing behaviour in public health. They also recognise the context in which policies are put into effect and the ‘acceptability’ of policies designed to change behaviour:
“While behavioural science works to identify the environmental cues that increase as well as those that reduce consumption of these products [tobacco, alcohol, processed foods], changing these environmental cues (e.g. branded packaging of cigarettes, widespread availability of cheap processed foods, sugary drinks and alcohol), needs contributions from political, social and economic sciences, as well as history. Cambridge has rare strengths in this collection of disciplines with the potential to make a significant contribution to the huge and growing global burden of the chronic diseases caused by over-consumption." Professor Theresa Marteau, Director, Behaviour and Health Research Unit.
Our discussions around global energy issues brought together researchers at Cambridge with Professor Paul Wright from Berkeley’s Energy and Climate Institute. Professor Wright summarised the global energy challenge in supporting economic growth in all countries, especially developing ones, without substantially increasing carbon emissions from coal or gas. Professor Wright’s visit reflects collaboration between Berkeley and Cambridge, and our academics were interested in the ‘model’ that Berkeley has established through CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society), a centre that hosts multi-disciplinary projects on large societal problems such as energy and the environment, and IT for healthcare.
Fourth, we were reminded that public policy analysis is not just about addressing contemporary issues, but also about how to promote the public good, or ‘res publica’. As Professor Christopher Hill reflected, ‘this theme ran like a silver thread through all the discussions … it focuses on helping those responsible for acting on all our behalves to improve their ways of being both effective and democratic.’
We addressed what could be the specific contribution of Cambridge social science research to big issues such as energy, conservation and climate change. Cambridge’s distinctive approach to problems was summed up by delegates as providing ‘history, culture, ideas’- an appreciation of the causes of problems, the context in which policies are formed and implemented, and the importance of bringing original thinking to bear on complex issues. For example, Dr Vira from the university’s Conservation Initiative explored the important role for social science in building a case for conservation research and explaining and understanding the wider social constructs that shape and constrain conservation practice. More broadly the range of expertise at Cambridge gives the university considerable convening power in bringing diverse research interests around a theme. This was highlighted in the Energy Strategic Research Initiative and also in the Global Food Security Initiative, which brings together researchers form infectious diseases, land resources, modelling for food security and political economy.
We heard from the University’s Director of Communications, Paul Mylrea on activities to support engagement between researchers and policy makers. He also reminded us about the view from the other side – politicians and their private office – and how important it is for academics to identify and understand the target audience when communicating about research:
“A detailed understanding of the policy makers, their drivers, perceptions and beliefs, is critical for any researcher who wishes to influence policy. And just as important is, understanding the process of policy making. All too often, sound advice can be discarded because it is presented in the wrong way, at the wrong time or through the wrong channels.”
The symposium was an opportunity to connect with new colleagues and hear about the range of work going on at Cambridge in subjects as diverse as law and zoology, and to ‘talk with them about potential collaborations and contributions we could make to each other’s work’ (Dr Alex Kogan).
On energy, Dr David Reiner commented that, ‘The Philomathia Symposium was a great opportunity for me to meet with Prof Paul Wright who directs the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute (BECI) and discuss opportunities for future collaboration between Cambridge and Berkeley and particularly between the Energy Policy Research Group/Energy@Cambridge and BECI.’
Leaving the symposium delegates were convinced of the strength of social science at Cambridge, the importance of collaborative research, and the case was made for undertaking new research and analysis into the public policy process at Cambridge.
Professor Martin Daunton, Head of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, who leads the Philomathia Social Sciences Research Programme at Cambridge summed up the day:
“The symposium was a great success in bringing together social sciences with colleagues from the sciences, medicine and technology who realise that their solutions to the great challenges facing to the world stand little chance of success without a deep engagement with social, political and economic processes. A conversation started across disciplinary lines which will develop and flourish in the future”.