Bridging the divide between government and academia

I am a sucker for a good news story about a new scientific discovery. Whether black holes or the mapping of the human genome, I find it both riveting and inspiring when longstanding mysteries of the universe are unlocked.

For me, there is another factor driving my enjoyment of news stories about science – the fact that front and centre in the dialogue surrounding virtually all media stories involving significant scientific advancement is a member of the academic community that is either driving the research, or at the very least commenting on the implications of the discovery. The same, unfortunately, is not always true when it comes to our national dialogue on public policy.

Behind the scenes, examples abound of academia helping shape and inform solutions that lead to strong public impact. However, our national and public dialogue too often feels devoid of the objectivity and robust analysis that is at the foundation of academia.

This dynamic is particularly frustrating for public sector practitioners. Close to the action, with responsibility for program design and delivery, public sector personnel see a very different and much more textured landscape than the high level narrative that plays out in the national media.  Through the lens of the practitioner, policymaking and public administration is not about one side being 100% right and the other side 100% wrong.  Instead, government operators exist in a world where issues have numerous tradeoffs with no absolutes and tremendous uncertainty.  For these dedicated professionals, there is ongoing recognition and acceptance that the final outcome of the policy process will inevitably be imperfect, warranting ongoing refinement, rather than rebuke.

While serving in the federal government for roughly 18 years, I often craved a louder voice of objectivity in our national dialogue – one that included objective, evidence-based, and multi-faceted insights to strengthen public impact.

Discourse dynamics

Academia is no stranger to the topic of public policy. The path between lecture hall and government office is well-worn, with policymakers regularly switching between the two — particularly after the election of a new administration. A wide range of academic programs centred on public policy showcase the rich variety of issues and potential research projects that pour forth from government on a daily basis.

I believe we need to find more channels to bridge these insights into government reform efforts. There are some promising developments on this front, including connectivity hubs for academia and government like theconversation.com, fedcafe.org and scholarsstrategynetwork.org. To complement and reinforce these activities, I believe it is important that we see a more regular drumbeat of academic input into the debates that  play out in our national media, shape public opinion, and therefore have critical influence on the direction and choices that lead to public impact.

An academia injection

For academia, entering the national fray on policy debates such as health care reform can bring with it some complications. In particular, no matter how objective one’s approach, it seems an almost impossible task to insert oneself into today’s policy discussions without arousing the ire of one side of the aisle or the other. Any potential perception of bias, whether justified or not, certainly presents a danger to the objective status that so critical to academic credibility. However, if the alternative is that public debate lacks a clear voice of objectivity that can raise the quality of the discourse, it may be a risk worth taking.

Academics in the scientific community are not immune to this risk. While commentary on the discovery of a new black hole is unlikely to raise any political red flags, the same cannot be said about the debate surrounding climate change. On this important topic, academia entered the public debate, bringing important depth and dimension to the national dialogue.

Our system of higher education remains the envy of the world. Our campuses teem with life; a rich blend of academic achievement, sporting glory, and of hopes and dreams fulfilled. At the same time, confidence in government and our process for advancing progress through public sector-driven solutions is at all time low.

Perhaps it’s time for both political parties and the national media to facilitate a safe harbour environment that enables greater academic input to our most challenging policy dilemmas. A stronger dose of objectivity into the public debate would not only lead to better policy outcomes, I believe it will help close the growing trust gap between the American people and our government.

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FURTHER READING

  • Schools of thought. Declining state appropriations, increasing tuition, rising student debt, growing employer dissatisfaction and critiques from an array of politicians have all led to increased questioning about the impact of higher education institutions in the United States. But what do leaders of colleges and universities think?
  • Look up and learn. OECD education chief, Andreas Schleicher, tells us about his efforts to improve student outcomes around the world
  • Maths mission. South Africa’s youth face many challenges but they are benefiting from the efforts of Sharanjeet Shan, executive director of Maths Centre, a Johannesburg based not-for-profit
  • Class action. Khadijah Abdullah explains how she is spearheading education reform as chief executive of Malaysia’s Education and Performance Delivery Unit.
  • Leadership lessons. We find out why New York’s schools continue to feel the impact of Joel Klein’s eight years as chancellor of the city’s Department of Education.
  • Reading rules. Sir David Bell reflects on a career that has included teaching five-year-olds, inspecting schools, running England’s education department and serving as vice-chancellor of the University of Reading.
  • Character counts. Getting more young people into employment comes down to the applicant’s character, explains Leila Hoteit