Should we make our stuff longer and more complicated?

The ivory tower fights back. Over on the Overseas Development Institute blog, Enrique Mendizabal is having a too much informationmoment of self doubt. As head of the ODI’s excellent Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme, Enrique usually tells researchers that if they want to have any influence on policy makers they need to KISS (Keep it Short and Simple – my acronym not his). As a result we have seen a ‘surge in briefing papers, opinion pieces, blogs and other multimedia communications’. But now he’s worried that he’s been too successful – is satisfying policy-makers’ preference for mental snacks rather than square meals making them flabbier?

“By always giving policy-makers what they want – shorter, simpler and easier things to read – are we implicitly accepting that they should not be held up to the same standards as other professionals? In short, are we unintentionally ‘dumbing down’ the audience? Somehow, we have come to accept that policy-makers in the development sector (and I include policy-makers of developing and developed countries in this group) don’t need to engage with the complexity of the problems they face and that it is enough for them to know what to do.”

But if policy makers are to do their job, they need to work out in the brain gym, and that’s partly researchers’ responsibility:

“Think tanks and other research organisations don’t exist only to do research and directly seek policy changes: they are also responsible, whether they like it or not, for the development of future generations of policy-makers and promoting the debate of new ideas and supporting the environment where these happen. If communicating in ever simpler and flashier terms goes as far as removing all engagement with the research itself (the definition of the problem, methods, models, frameworks, etc.), then we are no different from any other interest groups that influence policy based on their beliefs or allegiances.”

Interesting, although Enrique risks overstating how much influence researchers have, anyway. I’d make two additional points. Firstly, there’s an inherent conservatism about KISS: because tried, tested (and tired) ideas have been endlessly chewed over and communicated, they are much easier to boil down into bullet points than new ideas that are initially more confused and ill defined. A bullet point culture slows up the speed with which new ideas can enter the mainstream.

Secondly, the audience for research is not a simple polar “decision-makers and researchers”. There’s a crucial intermediate tier of special advisers and government officials sufficiently junior to still have time to read stuff. They’re the ones we should be insisting take the time to consider longer, more complex analysis.

All this of course assumes the research is worth communicating in the first place. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education casts serious doubt on that, lamenting the “avalanche of low-quality research” and pointing out that “Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals [two decades ago] were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further…”

Tenure_cartoonThe problem lies with an academic incentive system that rewards quantity, not quality, ensuring that “Aspiring researchers are turned into publish-or-perish entrepreneurs.” True that – I was recently talking to one such “aspiring researcher” at the local university who’s been told by his head of department not to write books, as papers can be turned around quicker and get more points in the reward system. Depressing. Still, Chris Blattman is relaxed.

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3 Responses to “Should we make our stuff longer and more complicated?”
  1. Ken Smith

    Is it too much to hope that the audience for research might not just be “decision-makers and researchers” and those in-between but someone who can interpret this research for the general public ? Things like the benefits of GM crops , what development policies might stop heroin growing in Afghanistan ought to be the concerns of everyone (one day maybe)

    Duncan: fair point Ken, the ecosystem is indeed rich, with activists, academics, high end journalists, civil society organizations etc all involved. Enrique was, I think writing from the point of view of his RAPID programme though – researchers aiming for immediate policy impact.

  2. Enrique Mendizabal

    Not entirely. The irony: i was arguing for avoiding oversimplification but was limited by the medium, the blog, that demands a bit of it. RAPID understand policy in broad terms. The decisions and advice that advisors provide are, in our view, policy decisions and part of the policymaking process. They are, also, policy makers.

    So we also recognise that research is not only aimed at immediate policy impact. In fact, i say that quite clearly when I argue that research centres (think tanks) are not only there to influence policy directly. The academic audience of the researcher is equally important -not the least because academics often go into government to implement their ideas.

    And also because I subscribe to the view that universities are not ivory towers simply because they follow academic methods see for a very good argument.

    I guess that if we want evidence informed policy what I was trying to say is that advisors need to up their game and engage with the evidence (and all its caveats and complexities). Bullet points and killer facts are not enough.

  3. I wonder if this is not more of an expression of frustration that recommended policies from a larger better proliferation of “think tanks” still take about the same time to be considered even though they have been “dumbed down” to make it easier and quicker for the audience to digest.

    I do not think the problem lies in the presentation of the information but rather in the receiver’s genuine interest in terms of his/hers objective. If you are able to succinctly make your point, those who make the decisions will act if it suits their or the wider agenda/strategy/objective. If they do not understand or appreciate the complexity of an issue it rather reflects on their inability to effectively engage with the problem they are trying to solve.

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