When being part of the solution is being part of the problem

25 Sep 2013

THE recent election in Australia demonstrated, yet again, the urgent need for research and debate to inform, inspire and challenge public policy. Improving our understanding of the great problems facing society is an ongoing imperative for academics.

While the call for policy relevant research is a familiar refrain, discussion of what counts as ‘relevant’ remains marginalised. Fierce debate about the advantages and disadvantages of positioning academia in something of a service role to government and other research funders has implicitly reinforced a simplistic ideal of service as direct input on policy questions.  

But, as many academics understand, policy relevance is about more than providing important knowledge on the short list of topics featured on the policy agenda at any one time. While a focused agenda can be beneficial, breadth is also essential, particularly in light of uncertainties about the future. Genuine policy relevance is thus far more than political relevance.

Balancing problem formulation and solution generation

In the face of the growing pressure on academics to produce policy relevant knowledge, a common complaint is the way this can narrow our focus onto not just political hot spots, but immediate problems. Unhappily, this can perpetuate the “presentism” to which political institutions are prone. Indeed, as Ross Garnaut recently argued (40), this political and policy bias may have strengthened in recent years: it is harder now to create policy in the long-term public interest than it was a decade ago.

While policy-making can be a near-term and urgent affair that is triggered, too often, by confected crises, policy itself is future-oriented. Policy concerns what people are going to do and is aimed at creating social, economic and environmental conditions congenial to human flourishing. The rise of solutions-focused thinking further emphasises the aspirational qualities of policy. Such thinking is appealingly positive and reflected in the apparent ‘solutions turn’ in academic research as researchers – ourselves included - increasingly seek to ‘make a difference’ in the world. It can encourage clear and definitive research messages of the sort climate scientists have been trying to send to government about climate change.

But in the policy world, what counts as a solution is, in part, a product of the politically palatable and operationally implementable. In the case of climate change, this has reduced the focus onto the small and inadequate range of incremental options. The upshot is tedious debate about mere technicalities rather than actions commensurate with the depth and breadth of the problem, reinforcing the relative marginality of climate change on the political agenda.

Truly relevant research is not that which prematurely jumps to provide ill-conceived ‘solutions’ but is that which that which properly identifies and communicates the scale and complexities of the problems involved. For example, a comprehensive understanding of the asylum seeker ‘problem’ requires the consideration of a number of interconnected issues before anything approaching a solution can be proposed. The idea that current arrangements – as an effective continuation of ‘the Pacific Solution’ – is an actual “solution” to the problem of people seeking asylum in Australia is misleading.

Overall, it seems that to be considered relevant to policy in the current milieu, research needs to contribute to acceptable future solutions on the subset of policy questions that are deemed to be of relevance in the present day. This triple move of: (1) narrowing priorities to a small subset of problems; (2) displacing attention from the drivers and manifestations of problems to future planning; and (3) constraining future visions to politically palatable solutions is deeply unhelpful. Not only are many important policy concerns excluded from discussion but, even in priority areas, there is little interest in deeply understanding the present day problems involved or the range of future possibilities that may exceed the identified ‘solution’. In consequence, this trinity of factors impairs our capacity to devise and enact long-term, historically grounded and ethically and scientifically policies.

What is relevant if there are no solutions?

On the face of it, the narrowing of focus entailed in adopting a solution orientation seems harmless. However, given the effectively insoluble character of many complex modern day problems, it is potentially one of the most unhelpful constraints on research effort. These ‘wicked problems (0)’ are not amenable to a business-as-usual approach but rather a long-term, ongoing, adaptive and systemic approach. This is not a call for inaction, but for more ambitious, sophisticated and inclusive action.

For researchers working on wicked problems – as many within increasingly mission-driven institutions are – the solutions-based research ideal can be misleading and exclusionary. Attempting to reduce systemic issues to simple or definitive policy solutions can be wasteful and harmful, creating false certainty, unwise action, and unintended consequences.  

Instead, it needs to be recognised that researching and articulating problems is of value even if one cannot yet articulate a solution. The wicked problem of sustainability exemplifies this. As the Irish political philosopher John Barry (2012) puts it in relation to sustainability questions, we must continue to strive to understand the drivers of ‘actually existing unsustainability’ if we hope to discover how to achieve future sustainability.

Although all of us are impatient for positive outcomes, the more we learn about how dynamic, uncertain and complex sustainability issues are, the more it is apparent that as a society, research community or government we cannot simply “move on” from trying to understand the problem and its knotted, sprouting roots to the more emotionally and politically satisfying task of solution generation.

The complexity of many policy-relevant problems and the politically expedient evaluation of research utility means that we need to rethink what relevance means – or else risk that the call for more policy relevant research becomes part of the problem itself.

As politics cools in the after-glow of the election, climate change discussions are likely to be reduced to squabbles over one group of inadequate actions versus another. At the same time, the world continues to warm (Australia, as we know, is on track for another record-breaking year), and higher education and research are likely to come under increased scrutiny regarding their demonstrable value. It is critical that our efforts to defend the value of research do not buy into impoverished notions of relevance. The genuine relevance of research is its correspondence to important issues not politics. •

Lauren Rickards is a Research Fellow at th Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and Samuel Wilson is a Research Fellow at the Swinburne Leadership Institute

Photo: MerveKarahan/ iStockphoto

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