The Research/Policy Divide

At meeting of higher ed researchers, scholars and policy wonks confront an old but still-present question: Can academic work influence decision makers?
November 5, 2009

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- It's not usually a good strategy for moderators at conference sessions to make it clear at the start that the topic to be discussed is anything but new; doing so could have a tendency to suppress audience interest. But in introducing a session here Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study in Higher Education, Joni Finney had a method to her madness in acknowledging that the question at its core -- why don't public policy makers use scholarly research more? -- has a long history.

She recalled a similar event "many, many years ago," early in the group's history, "in which fingers were pointing each way," with researchers saying they were doing good work only to find it ignored by politicians who might actually do something with it, and policy makers accusing "academics of just talking to themselves, in a world all unto their own."

Finney's point, of course, was that the issues, while age-old, are still worth discussing because if anything, the stakes are even higher today than they were back then, elevated along with the growing recognition of the importance of postsecondary education as a driver both of individual economic and social mobility and of societal change.

And while the spirited discussion that followed generally avoided outright finger pointing, the scholars and policy wonks on the panel did not see entirely eye to eye on either the extent of the disconnect, the causes behind it, or potential fixes. But there was widespread agreement that it would be better for all involved if those who study higher education were regularly contributing analyses and even potential answers to those responsible for setting the policies and making the laws that govern it. (That's a theme that has been hit at other conferences of scholars this year, in various disciplines.)

That happens all too rarely now, both because of researchers' methods and their subject matter choices, argued Patrick M. Callan, founding president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. "There's a major mismatch between the way that problems are framed [by most academic researchers], and what is considered 'rigor' [from a theoretical standpoint] almost eliminates the likelihood that the research will be applicable to the kind of real world problems" policy makers deal with, he said.

And even more importantly, Callan said, "much of academic research isn't interested in the same things that policy makers are interested in." There is a "paucity of research," for instance, on what happens to students at "broad access" institutions (such as community colleges and urban public universities) that serve the largest number of students, even though that's where most of the public policy questions in recent years, and especially now, are focused. But most scholarly research examines practices at major research universities, Callan said, because "most researchers are in R1's -- or want to be."

Legislators and other policy makers are particularly interested right now in such issues as "how to change intractable institutions in ways that serve public purposes better," institutional and faculty productivity, and "whether we've learned anything from the last few recessions" about how to manage higher education -- but scholarly work from inside the academy on those topics is hard to find. (Think tanks, on the other hand, are often a fount of studies on topics of interest to lawmakers, Callan said.)

Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers group, generally shared Callan's view that there is a disconnect between the desire of social scientists to craft the perfect "empirically justified," randomized experimental model and "by George, come up with real knowledge," and the more complex, messier world in which public policy is made.

Finney, who has joined the academy (as a "practice professor" at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education) after many years as a state higher education analyst, said that it was no surprise that many researchers were focused on the theoretical over the practical and the scientifically pure over the publicly accessible, given the reward structure in higher education.

"There is great pressure on faculty to make theoretical contributions, no matter how important, or unimportant, they might be," she said. That may lead some young scholars to wait until they are tenured to do research that might end up spurring legislation or generating an op-ed rather than tucked quietly away in a refereed journal, said Laura Perna, another member of Penn's education faculty.

With dozens of graduate students in the audience, Pennsylvania State University's Donald E. Heller said he did not want to leave future scholars with the impression that the academy is inhospitable to professors interested in doing public policy work. (See Heller's Views piece today on one hot public policy topic.)

"There are institutions that are very well respected that strongly value research that can be used" by policy makers, he said. "And there are institutions that value that very little at all."

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