Increasing Social Science Research Capacity: Some Supply-Side Considerations

Article excerpt


This paper discusses the development of policy-related research capacity, with particular reference to the place of tertiary education. With regard to the recent demands for more policy-focused research, it argues that deficiencies on the supply side may prove a systematic inhibitor to a more satisfactory "utilisation equilibrium". These are issues that the public sector in the broadest sense need to act upon. Otherwise there is the danger that a capacity gap will result in growing dissatisfaction with the search for answers to the evidence-based questions "What works?" and "Where is the proof?"


An important shift in policy thinking, both locally and internationally, has been the call for better evidence on which to base policy, programme and professional intervention. At all levels of policy development key questions being articulated are "What works?" and "where is the proof?" The question of what qualifies as adequate proof has always been a complex one, combining as it does political influences, organisational memory, tacit knowledge, and the persuasiveness of various proponents (Polanyi 1957, Kuhn 1962, Lindblom 1979, Smith 1999). However, and perhaps even because of a recognition of that complexity, within the range of sources privileged as acceptable as evidence, research has always laid claim to a prized place.

A number of factors are exerting pressure for evidence-based, or at least evidence-influenced, activity. The debate is a wide one, encompassing a plethora of policy spheres, disciplines and methodologies. A key driver here is the continuing emphasis within the public sector to secure value for money, close gaps, ensure accountability, and improve service delivery. It has been suggested that high-quality evidence is increasingly being demanded as part of the policy process (Davies et al. 2000, Ministry of Social Policy 2001). There has been recognition of the limited part played by more focused evaluation, and a debate has re-emerged about the relationship of research, evaluation and policy (State Services Commission 1999, Smithies and Bidrose 2000, Ministry of Social Policy 2001). We say re-emerged because the debate about the role of research and its links to government policy is a longstanding one, with discussions around the use of social science within government beginning in the 1930s (cf. Robb 1987) with the Social Science Research Bureau; growth within the government sector and the universities in the post-war period (Marsh 1952, McCreary 1971, Mackay 1975) and disillusionment from the 1970s and the corresponding search for an appropriate organisational model and configuration of social science (e.g., Gibson 1970, Shields 1975, Fougere and Orbell 1975, Keir 1982).

The purpose of this paper is not to rehearse debates about the value of research in the policy-making process, but to offer some ideas about preconditions for usage. The paper then identifies some of the barriers currently present in the tertiary and public sector that will--in all probability--militate against that maximisation, and it ends with some suggestions about what could be done to overcome those barriers. Essentially, our discussion is driven by what the Ministry of Social Policy (2001) discussion document refers to as a "rightward shifting demand curve by central agencies", and what we identify as a particular bottleneck to supply emanating from the tertiary sector.

Internal and External Capacity

High-quality, policy-relevant work may be sourced from a range of suppliers. Here we identify three main types:

* an agency's own internal research and evaluation capacity;

* a contractor-commissioner relation (with the contract going to the tertiary sector, market research sector, private contractors or a mixture); and

* a hybrid relationship, which may involve internal research capacity combined with external modifiers--typically consultants bringing specific skills. …