Cultivating research expertise for complex policy problems

Supporting action on complex policy problems

Gabriele Bammer

Government and governance, Science and technology | Australia

28 August 2019

Improved research skills are crucial to understanding difficult issues and finding creative and evidence-based policy solutions, Gabriele Bammer writes.

How can research contribute to more effective policies, especially on complex societal and environmental problems, such as climate change, illicit drug use and poverty?

Such interdisciplinary policy issues require research that effectively integrates information from relevant disciplines plus perspectives from stakeholders, as well as packaging and presenting that combined knowledge in a way that’s useful to policymakers.

That expertise for integrating and implementing research is still under-developed and fostering such expertise is largely missing from university educational offerings.

To illustrate the knowledge and skills researchers require, consider the complex problem of illicit drug use. Researchers need to be able to identify and integrate important, but only partial, disciplinary understandings – such as knowledge about drug effects from pharmacologists, impacts on property theft and other crime from criminologists, regulations and laws from legal experts, and how those laws came into being from historians.

They also need to be able to build a more comprehensive picture of the problem by weaving in understanding from two groups of stakeholders, those affected by the problem – such as illicit drug users, and professional groups dealing with the problem –  such as treatment service providers, police officers, and indeed policymakers themselves.

Research expertise is also required to deal with five particular aspects of complex problems.

More on this: From 'publish or perish' to 'collaborate or crumble'

The first is delimiting the problem.

Complex problems, such as illicit drug use have no natural boundaries. Depending on the drug, financial aspects may intersect with organised crime, funding for terrorism, or subsistence farming in producer countries.

Prevention must account for multiple factors, such as the legacy of childhood sexual abuse, as well as influences of popular culture, youthful rebellion and peer pressure. Treatment is influenced by practitioner availability and training, health care funding arrangements, and stigma.

These connections mean that addressing one aspect causes changes in others and may lead to the emergence of new issues. Nevertheless, from both a research and a policy perspective, not everything can be dealt with and boundaries must be set.

Research expertise is required to appreciate the artificial, but necessary, nature of these limits and their implications for both understanding problems and acting on them.

The second is managing contested problem definitions.

Those involved in a complex problem, such as illicit drug use, have different ideas about the ‘real’ problem and its causes. For example, some see illicit drug use as a crime that results from the failure of individuals to take responsibility for adhering to laws meant to protect them.

Others see the law as the heart of the problem, driving the growth of organised crime and preventing a relatively innocuous activity from being controlled by social and cultural norms.

More on this: Building bridges between research and indsutry

Still others see illicit drug use as resulting from a brain disorder that requires medical treatment.

Research expertise is required to engage with different perspectives, to manage conflicts among them, and provide an understanding of how they may affect decisions taken.

Third is managing critical, unresolvable unknowns.

It is not possible to know everything about a complex problem.

Not everything that could be known will be investigated because there is not enough research capacity, funding or interest in every conceivable, and potentially important, question.

Further, some critical issues cannot be researched. For example, there are few feasible entry points for examining links among illicit drug use, organised crime and funding for terrorism. Lastly, interpretations of available information often conflict.

No research project can gather all relevant knowledge; hence, expertise is required to identify and chart a way of managing remaining unknowns, so that they do not lead to adverse unintended consequences or nasty surprises.

The fourth aspect of dealing with a complex problem is managing real-world constraints on ameliorating the problem.

Policymakers are well aware that ideological, cultural, political, economic, and other circumstances constrain how any complex problem can be tackled. Research expertise is required to ensure that investigations are not blind to these realities, especially when they aim to provide practical policy advice.

This involves awareness of generic issues that play out in specific ways depending on the problem.

More on this: Researchers are from Mars, policymakers are from Venus

These include international treaties and laws, which, for example, restrict options for action on illicit drugs, or resourcing issues, where shifting resources, say between law enforcement and health, can be challenging.

Multi-sector collaboration – getting agencies to work together across law enforcement, health, social welfare and education – can be difficult too.

Further, researchers can assist policymakers by using expertise to tease out how the multi-faceted circumstances in which a problem is embedded can make it resistant to change.

The final aspect to address is appreciating and accommodating the partial and temporary nature of solutions.

Policymakers are also well aware that policy “solutions” tend to be partial and temporary and again research expertise is required to ensure that investigations take these realities into account. To a large extent, this imperfection is a consequence of the four aspects of complex problems described above.

Researchers can complement policymaker skills and help develop the best possible ways forward on problems by cultivating expertise in understanding how any change affects interconnected problems.

Then, they can contribute by identifying when changes go against the deeply held values of stakeholders and helping identify and manage the consequences of unknowns, ensuring that critical real-world constraints are understood and managed.

Researchers have an important role in supporting policymakers by providing understanding that takes complexity into account while also providing practical ways forward. Research integration and implementation expertise can help researchers and policymakers proceed with humility, adapt to change, and rapidly identify action to counter unwelcome surprises.

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