David Blunkett says research can have an impact on policy but only if it is constructive and practical, reports David Budge
EDUCATION RESEARCHERS often feel like the spear-carriers on the national policy-making stage. But now they have been promised a share of the spotlight - provided they follow a different script.
Education Secretary David Blunkett spoke of the new partnership that he wants between government and researchers when he addressed the Economic and Social Research Council in London last week.
He said it was time to break down "the barriers of mutual suspicion and defensiveness... which are part of the unfortunate legacy of the past".
Mr Blunkett acknowledged that "a seam of anti-intellectualism" - both amongst politicians and officials - had run through previous administrations.
But now researchers had a real opportunity to make a practical impact on policy. It would be a tragedy if they did not seize it, he said.
The Education Secretary said that researchers had often frustrated policy-makers by:
addressing issues that were not directly relevant to political and policy debates;
failing to understand the reality of many people's lives;
setting out to prove a policy wrong rather than genuinely seeking to evaluate its impact; and
publishing papers that were unintelligible to potential users of research.
He added: "What is the point of... small groups of people responding to each other's writing in esoteric journals, read only by themselves and relevant only to themselves?"
Mr Blunkett accepted that politicians and the Department for Education and Employment also had a far-from-blameless record. And he also confessed the error of his own ways.
"When evidence doesn't back up my prejudices I am immediately agin (sic) it. at least at first. Thee's a long way to go in getting those in government to be entirely open-minded, but we're getting there."
Unusually, he criticised some of his own officials: "Our analytical services have too often proved less versatile and creative than those in independent research think-tanks in bringing evidence to bear on the real debates about social policy.
"To address this we are working with the major research funders and research departments and institutes to gain quicker access to emerging research findings, encouraging. our own specialists to focus on analysis rather than simply data collection."
Mr Blunkett said that "longitudinal cohort" studies (tracing the development of a particular group of children through time) such as the 1958 National Child Development Study provided the sort of information and analysis that government needed.
Policy-makers had also been helped by the review of research into thinking skills carried out by Dr Carol McGuinness of Queen's University, Belfast, and by the Assessment for Learning project at King's College, London, he said.
"To have a practical influence, conclusions from research must be realistic and achievable. What policy-makers find most frustrating and least useful are, at one extreme, a refusal to venture out from behind the safety of the data and the methodology to draw out any policy implications at all; and, at the other extreme, recommendations which may represent the ideal but take no account whatever of issues of costs. This is ivory-towerism at its worst."
Mr Blunkett did, however, concede that there is still a place for "blue-sky" research that thinks the unthinkable.
He said: "We need researchers who can challenge fundamental assumptions and orthodoxies and this may well have big policy effects much further down the road."