Policy Organizations: An Insider's View

Article excerpt

Harvard Professor Lawrence Summers insightfully discussed how academic research can influence and hopefully improve public policy ("Bridging the Divide: When Policy Profits from Research," Summer 2006). He mentioned two main avenues: academics who become government policymakers often use their knowledge in trying to shape policy, and nonacademic policymakers in government are sometimes aware of and willing to apply academic findings.

Another major conduit from the academy to government action, not explicitly mentioned by Summers, is that many people in government agencies have specialized academic training and knowledge that they frequently put to use in their jobs.

Public policy groups can also provide a link between academic research and public policy. Having worked at a Washington-based public policy institute for many years, I have seen that policymakers are typically forced to juggle many issues. They cannot be experts in all of them. To obtain additional information, policymakers often reach out to academics, government specialists, public policy institutes, business people, and others.

Thus an important role for public policy organizations is explaining research findings in language that is accessible to nonspecialists. This democratizes academic research by helping a broader audience better comprehend and evaluate the research. Public policy organizations may also invite academics to speak before their audiences in the policy community, commission papers from academics on issues of special policy relevance, and apply and sometimes extend academic research to address specific policy questions and proposals.

For example, why did oil prices jump after hurricanes Katrina and Rita? Why have they stayed high since then? And would special taxes on US oil companies make matters better or worse? I helped write several papers earlier this year that used core economic principles of supply and demand to examine these questions. Other think tanks also offered analyses guided by these principles, as did several government agencies, including the US Federal Trade Commission.

Compared to academic research, the work of public policy organizations is usually more focused on specific policy issues and is more time sensitive. For instance, when the US Congress was considering pension legislation earlier this year, the institute at which I work promptly produced a report using neoclassical economic theory to evaluate whether several retirement-saving provisions would reduce anti-saving tax biases in the federal income tax system and ultimately concluded that they would.

Public policy organizations sometimes employ cutting-edge academic research to evaluate policy questions, but, as in the above examples, a policy question often involves principles that were once brand new but are now well established. …