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Pathways to Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences integration: a policymaker’s perspective on bridging the research-policy gap

by Mary Doyle

A version of this post was given as a presentation at the SHAPE-ID Webinar “Pathways to Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences: Bridging the Research Policy Gap” on 25th June 2020.

Integrating the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) in interdisciplinary research (IDR) and transdisciplinary research (TDR) has long been an important issue but has acquired new urgency in recent times. Not just because we are in the midst of a global pandemic but also because of the rapidly changing environment in which we are living – social, political and physical. This requires researchers and others, including policymakers, to work together – something many have very little experience of doing.

I come to this challenge as a policymaker, having worked in the Irish Civil Service from the late 1970s until my retirement two years ago. Most of my career was spent in the Department of the Taoiseach or Prime Minister – which has a key role at the centre in managing the overall system of Government – and latterly in the Departments of Health, Children and Education and Skills. I am particularly interested in the management of complex issues, or “wicked problems” as they are sometimes called, across Government, and the role that research and evidence can play in helping to understand and resolve societal challenges.

I would like to take as my starting point here the recommendations in the recently published SHAPE-ID Policy Brief on improving pathways to AHSS integration. Then I would like to make some comments from the policymaker’s perspective and conclude with some remarks on the importance of having the architecture in place to initiate and support necessary conversations in the longer term.

It is timely to begin to reimagine the role of the AHSS in the public policy space with a focus on relevance and impact, particularly in light of the Covid-19 challenges which will continue to profoundly change how we live. A recent blog on the Irish Humanities Alliance website by Professor Daniel Carey titled “The Humanities and Covid-19 Research” makes a compelling case and sets out a rich tapestry of possibilities for contributions from across the AHSS landscape. But for that to happen, something has to change. There is a famous article from 1975 by Professor Stephen Kerr titled “On the Folly of Rewarding A, while Hoping for B”, which says that hoping for one behaviour while rewarding another actually discourages the outcomes being sought. This highlights the need to really pay attention to the systems and structures which are in place to support and reward behaviour.

Luckily, the SHAPE-ID project is doing precisely this and so, like most policymakers who normally begin by going back to the source documents, I want in particular to think about this contribution specifically in the context of the SHAPE-ID project This project is designed to positively influence the shaping of interdisciplinary practices in Europe and a key element of the project has been to rigorously consider the factors which support or hinder IDR and TDR, with a focus on research involving AHSS.

Four key policy implications and recommendations have been identified from the literature review and the survey of researchers and, interestingly, they speak to a wide range of actors, including policymakers. Together they form a powerful package of change measures. To briefly recap:

Funders and policymakers need to engage more substantively with AHSS communities across the spectrum of disciplines and with IDR/TDR experts when defining, designing and evaluating IDR/TDR calls.

Funding programmes should allow for additional resources to enable IDR/ TDR development.

Policymakers should support and incentivise universities to build capacity in IDR and TDR by taking steps to de-risk career paths and integrate IDR/TDR into education and training at an early stage.

A toolkit of IDR/TDR methods, materials and best practice examples is urgently needed to provide a common point of reference for European stakeholders to facilitate the above recommendations.

The challenge now is to think about how to go about designing and putting into action the practical steps needed to develop and deepen this interaction. This requires concerted action on the part of a number of actors – specifically, academics, policymakers and funders. As these worlds intersect, each group needs to better understand the world of the other, and since the title of my contribution references the policymaker’s perspective that is what I will now focus on.

The Policy Sphere

Since I came to the Long Room Hub in Trinity last year, I have been struck not so much by the differences but by the similarities which exist between the world of policy and the world of academia. The challenges facing both worlds have remarkably similar parallels when you think about it at a conceptual level. In the world of policymaking, the process generally is an iterative one, starting with agenda setting, then moving through problem definition on to policy development and into policy evaluation. Is that really so different from the world of the academic in identifying a research question, defining it closely, researching the topic, gathering the evidence, evaluating the evidence and reaching conclusions? Is managing complex agendas across Government Departments and Agencies really so different to managing interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary projects and programmes?

But there are key differences…

Policymaking is an inherently messy business. The world of the policymaker is extremely busy, noisy, fractious, contested. Policy is deeply influenced by history and precedent, is inherently political in nature, has multiple voices in the conversation and is highly iterative. This point is well made by Gabrielle Dreyfus of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development in a recent contribution to One Earth on “Bridging the Science-Policy Divide” when she notes that:

“Scientists need to know that making policy decisions often involves tough trade-offs with winners and losers. Policymakers operate in a world of competing interests and uncertainty”.

They also operate in a world which is extremely time bound because having the perfect answer is of no use whatsoever if you have it after the Minister is on his or her feet in the Parliament or the Government meeting is almost over.

Policymakers face significant time constraints in their work and need to assemble and digest complex material from multiple sources and formulate advice quickly. So, adopting the policymaker’s perspective, to bring some order to the process, there are a number of key questions to consider:

Who sets the agenda?

In a busy world, the issues under consideration need to be powerfully articulated and they need to be big enough and important enough to mobilise support and resources. Who is in the room when these issues are being addressed is a really important issue.

Who leads and from where?

Strong and visible leadership is needed at various levels and from various perspectives. In the Government context that is almost always in the political space although it can sometimes come from other sources.

How is capacity to be built?

This is all about people – professional formation, skills, relationships, networks.

How are issues to be resourced?

This involves looking at existing allocations as well as new resources and deciding where investments are to be made and how.

What structures and mechanisms are needed to support a different approach?

This isn’t always just about establishing new structures. A better approach is often to adapt or replace existing arrangements to make them more suitable for the new priorities. Less is often more when it comes to mechanisms.

How is the project to be governed, managed and evaluated?

Clear governance and accountability arrangements are essential. Clarity of role is really important in this context… as is a culture of evaluation and accountability.

What is an effective approach to communication with stakeholders?

How are the cultural issues to be approached in the overall process?

Culture is important and often not very visible. Identifying and considering this issue specifically in the design stage can be helpful.

What does success look like?

This is often not thought about enough but is crucial to the overall direction of travel.

All of these issues are important and while not all of them would apply in every situation, most of them will have to be considered, designed and sequenced. Getting the AHSS community and the IDR/TDR perspective as an important resource into that conversation at an early point and keeping it there is crucial to making progress with the overall agenda.

Which brings me to my final section, which is to look at the architecture needed to support the necessary dialogue.

Next Steps: Developing the Architecture for Dialogue

In a recent blog published on the London School of Economics website, Frans Brom, an ethicist and Secretary of the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy, posed a series of important questions. Professor Brom argues that to influence policy effectively, the humanities must transcend individualism. Rather radically, he goes on to suggest that this would mean not only abandoning “outsider” perspectives focusing solely on criticism of power through individual political action, but also setting up institutions to pursue systematic dialogue with policymakers and the other sciences and to develop the expertise needed to conduct these conversations.

So, having established that AHSS research is an important national and international resource, let me now consider how the infrastructure might be developed and strengthened. To make progress on this agenda, I suggest that action needs to be initiated, led and managed in three distinct but overlapping spaces – in the research community itself and particularly in the Higher Education institutions, in our democratic institutions (specifically in Parliaments and in Government Departments or Ministries) and in the combined efforts of the Research Funders. Then all three have to design an architecture which enables them to engage positively with each other.

There is much excellent material to draw on in pursuing this, including the report on “Interdisciplinarity and the 21st Century research-intensive University” published by the League of European Research Universities (LERU) in November 2016, recommendations in the European Alliance for Social Sciences and Humanities (EASSH) paper “Interdisciplinary perspectives for Horizon Europe: Lessons from the 4th SSH Integration Monitor Report” published in April 2019 and the work of the Universities Policy Engagement Network, UPEN, in the UK, to mention but a few. Equally, the EU and Governments and Ministries could be clearer about their research priorities, perhaps on the lines of the UK Areas of Research Interest (ARI) Initiative.

There also needs to be much greater alignment across the various funders in considering the overall rewards and incentives in the system.

Finally, the issues and implications arising for academic training and professional development are central to progressing this agenda and deserve a particular focus in the future.

Mary Doyle is a Public Policy Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub. She retired from her role as Deputy Secretary General in the Department of Education and Skills in 2018. She joined the Department in 2012 where she had responsibility for Higher Education Policy, Funding and Legislation later taking responsibility for Further Education also. Mary worked for many years in the Department of the Taoiseach, acting in a variety of roles including corporate affairs, arts and culture and economic and social policy roles. She acted as Secretary to a range of Cabinet SubCommittees including Infrastructure, Social Inclusion, Health and the Economy and chaired the Senior Officials Groups which supported these SubCommittees. She also worked in the Departments of Health and Department of Children during the course of her career.  She is currently a Board member of Science Foundation Ireland and of The Wheel.


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