From Research to Social Policy and Back Again: Translating Scholarship into Practice through the Starry Eyes of a Sometimes Scarred Veteran

By Ellwood, David T. | Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, June 2003 | Go to article overview

From Research to Social Policy and Back Again: Translating Scholarship into Practice through the Starry Eyes of a Sometimes Scarred Veteran


Ellwood, David T., Social Policy Journal of New Zealand


Abstract

Professor Ellwood shares his unique perspective of being both a highly regarded academic and a former senior policy maker in the Clinton administration. He describes how three important research ideas and findings have influenced the poverty policy debate in the United States. First he illustrates the key findings, and explores how and why they influenced policy. Next, he discusses how the contrasting cultures of policy makers and scholars create inevitable divisions, but also opportunities for mutual benefit and connection. Finally, Professor Ellwood discusses specific measures that could improve the connection process.

INTRODUCTION

This conference is about both substance and process, and so I find myself in a quandary. For most of my adult life I have been a scholar of poverty and social policy. As a younger professor 1 worked with policy makers on a regular basis, but the experience was often frustrating, as these policy makers often ignored what I perceived to be rich scholarly insights and bold new initiatives. Then for approximately three years, I joined the Clinton administration and was part of a leadership troika for welfare reform. We tried to use academics, many of them close friends and colleagues, but often, we found them out-of-touch and calling on us to move in a completely different direction than our president had promised during the election. So 1 have felt the schizophrenic impulses of living in two worlds.

Since much of my life I have been a scholar, my natural inclination is to discuss critical scholarly ideas of policy relevance. But since I have also had the rare privilege of also wearing a policy hat, I have some desire to talk instead about how connections between social science research and policy succeed and fail.

In this paper, I first discuss how the contrasting cultures of policy makers and scholars create inevitable divisions, but also opportunities for mutual benefit. I describe how three important research ideas and findings have influenced the debate on poverty policy in the United States. They are the dynamics of poverty- and welfare, incentives and work, and randomised control evaluation. I seek both to illustrate the key findings and to explore how and why these research findings influenced policy. I try to generalise from these examples to show how and when policy and research can connect successfully. Finally, I discuss specific measures that I think could improve the connection process- some of which are already under way in New Zealand.

Let me preface my comments by noting that throughout this paper I am treating policy makers as one homogeneous group and scholars as another. Of course, policy is usually developed by professional staff working closely for political leadership. I treat the policy maker as one entity, with a political orientation. So I speak of political policy makers. In fact, in many nations the professional civil servants may have superb scholarly training, and may work very hard to keep up with the latest developments in research. For my purposes it is easier to separate the political from the research world, and so the policy maker is placed in the former. (1) For those who regard themselves as research oriented, politically neutral policy makers, I offer my apologies for this oversimplification.

CONTRASTING CULTURES AND ESSENTIAL ROLES: POLICY MAKERS AND SCHOLARS

The relationship between policy makers and research scholars is inevitably awkward and imperfect because each exists in very different cultures.

* Ideology versus Truth: First and foremost, political policy makers live in a world where values and ideology are central. As the public cannot possibly master the details of even a single piece of legislation, they elect representatives, as much for their values as for their specific policy positions. The competition of ideologies is at the very heart of democracy. …

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