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August 23rd, 2017
Kanishka Narayan

How to make ideas matter

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Academic ideas matter deeply to policy areas across government – but there is always more to do

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Academics need to *answer the question* – in government, relevance is king

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Academics need to get in early, keep engagement relevant and give time for open discussion

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Academic ideas matter. In urging peers to take impact seriously, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin knew as much. “Philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy entire civilisations”, he warned in 1958, echoing Herman Heine from a prior century still.

Much has changed since then. Academia has a far greater empirical bent, the stillness of professorial study interrupted by the incentives of research funding and the growth of policy schools. The unit of the question has also shrunk: much less civilisation-defining conceptual debate, much greater micro focus on the internal validity of empirical testing strategies.

But despite the changed form, ideas still matter. When I was working at the UK's Cabinet Office and at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), ideas from academia mattered deeply to areas I personally focused on: on the economic geography of city regions, on the contesting social mobility narratives of sociology and economics, on better valuing the environment in our economic decisions.

There is an immense focus on academic impact now. The structure of incentives seeks to ensure it. The relative weight of academic departments seems to prize it. And the increasing openness of government helps facilitate it. Despite this, there is still more to do in making sure not just that ideas matter, but that the very best ideas matter, and matter to their greatest extent.

Plugging research into practice

From being on the receiving and observing end of several academic engagements with government, I noted three practical steps that would have most helped plug research into practice.

Firstly, the timing of engagement was crucial. On occasion, by the time academic engagement started, a range of other legitimate voices had entrenched particular ideas on intervention in a way that narrowed the range of evaluation options. The tactics of timing trumped epistemic brilliance.

Secondly, the perennial teaching rebuke - answer the question - assumed greater meaning. In government, relevance is king. This is partly because questions of political and policy interest change swiftly, rewarding prompt relevance. And it is partly because in straddling political reality, operational possibility and academic desirability, deeply narrow and specific questions could have unlocked disproportionately large policy prizes. It is hard to predict these relevant questions from the outside.

Thinking back to my own education, I rued thinking as much about central bank independence, than about how we could better evaluate devolution when that policy shift meant a series of things all changing at the same time.

Finally, the occasions of greatest academic impact and most energetic collaboration came not from the handover of a rigorous journal paper, but from open-minded conversations.

Effective academics could spot many more ways in which a policy idea could go well or, equally, could dramatically fail. Academics, I felt, were aware of a wider range of causal possibilities because of their vantage point. But the very best academics had a crucial humility: willing to concede that, even when their work was internally rigorous, they were as unsure as others about its application beyond their particular test context. Impact, then, was about collectively figuring what specific contexts could tell us about possible influence and impact in a different place at a different time.

Towards maximum impact

It is clearly tough to get all three attributes right - to get in early, keep engagement relevant to questions of the day, and to give time for open discussion of possible impact. For one, pursuing this form of impact requires investment in time, effort and relationships. The rewards can be uncertain and delayed: there is no direct line of sight between writing a paper and seeing it reflected it in policy.

There is much that government can do to make the task easier for academics. And there is something for academics to learn from others: consultants often seemed effective at building early, relevant relationships, no doubt reflecting this investment in later, bundled project pricing.

Academics have the benefit of immense goodwill in government. By working on aspects of their interaction, the very best ideas can continue to matter.



  • Public services: a view from the campus. Sir David Bell's is a career steeped in education and learning. Now serving as vice-chancellor of the UK's University of Reading, he shares his thoughts about the nature of public service reform
  • Bridging the divide between government and academia. American colleges and universities are intellectual powerhouses that help enable policymakers drive public impact, says Danny Werfel. We just need it to happen more consistently
  • 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
  • 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.

Written by:

Kanishka Narayan
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