Political science should not be too distinct from public policymaking

Opinion: There is an argument in favour of allowing academics to pursue their own intellectual interests

David Thornley, political analyst and later practising politician, with Charlie McCreevy. Photograph: Jimmy McCormack

David Thornley, political analyst and later practising politician, with Charlie McCreevy. Photograph: Jimmy McCormack


Public policy-making in developed democracies is linked more and more to research findings about the impact and cost of particular policies, even though representative politics still determines overall priorities. The academic disciplines of social and public administration, with applied economics, are to the fore, as are those associated with big spending departments like health, welfare and education.

The professionalisation of political science in Europe and the US since the 1960s, and later elsewhere, has brought many benefits in the understanding of how politics works, by comparing political systems and behaviour in different countries and in developing much more sophisticated research methods.

Increased reliability
Statistical approaches, formal modelling, survey techniques and more careful specification of research questions increase the reliability of findings and are now very much part of the mainstream, as in other social sciences.

The explosion of available time-series data gives these techniques a larger applicability, potentially reconciling previous divisions between quantitative and qualitative scholars over whether they are appropriate and justifying a more pluralist approach.

But the academic study of politics often has a strange distance from policymakers. This is partly because they are different fields, the one abstract, the other practical, the one paying far more attention to what their peers write than to what politicians do. Making this point in his just published memoir Learning, the veteran and still remarkably active political scientist Richard Rose, who is 80 this year, recognises that it reflects the difference between searching for explanation and for policy effectiveness.

Similar divisions apply in most academic fields bearing on public policy. There is a strong argument in favour of allowing academics freedom to pursue their own intellectual interests, on ethical and prudential grounds, since breakthroughs in knowledge can take a long time but usually have unanticipated practical benefits.

Output imperative
This is notwithstanding the public funding that creates an imperative for applicable outputs, as can be seen in the thematic approach in the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme covering natural and social sciences as well as the humanities.

Allowing for these differences, Rose says there is still a real need to bridge the gap between political science and policymaking by governments. This can be done without sacrificing academic standards or encouraging over-utilitarian research. To that end he founded the centre for the study of public policy in the University of Strathclyde in 1976, where he has recently returned as professor of politics. Its work is problem-focused and evidence-based and has led to many illuminating interactions between political science and governmental practice, including important work on how the growth of government in developed democracies overloads methods of managing and directing it. Many other centres have been inspired to do similar research since then.

Rose’s book recounts his own development as a political scientist from the 1950s. He trained in the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford, then taught in Manchester before going to Strathclyde in 1966, where he remained until 2005, before going to Aberdeen.

An American from St Louis, Missouri, he came to Europe in his 20s and has stayed here. But his early broadly-based education at home and in Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and his training as a newspaper reporter in St Louis, gave him a grasp of everyday life, access to decision-makers, and an understanding of the importance of communicating research findings unusual among academic political scientists.

This has always stood to his prolific research output and is vividly described here. It ranges from his early work Politics in England, a book now in its 14th edition retitled Politics in Britain, to pioneering research on Northern Ireland in the 1960s before the outbreak of violence, to comparative work on western Europe, and then on Russia and eastern Europe, and more recent books on problems facing European integration.

Rose’s emphasis on the importance of public engagement and communication reminds me of David Thornley’s teaching, research and journalism in the 1960s. His work with Basil Chubb on proportional representation for the RTÉ television programme Seven Days before the referendum on the subject in 1968, for which I worked as a research assistant, demonstrated that the then Fianna Fáil government would be the overwhelming beneficiary of the changes proposed. That story, recounted in the book of memoirs of Thornley, Unquiet Spirit, is a classic Irish example of how political science can relate to policy-making.


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