Should policy makers listen to academics? This question may seem strange, given our experience of COVID-19. Scholars such as scientists, public health professionals, statisticians and social psychologists have played a vital role during the pandemic. The public has become familiar with the SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies) committees which have provided advice to the UK government throughout the pandemic.
This advice has played a crucial role in the shaping of the public health steps taken to contain or suppress the virus such as national lockdowns, wearing of face masks and the testing of vaccines. The need for expertise is not confined to COVID-19. Climate change, international trade after Brexit and new technologies will all rely on expert advice.
The relationship between academics and policy makers is, however, complex. The distinction between these two groups is not always clearly demarcated, as academics can be seconded into policy roles and policy makers may teach at universities or colleges. Academics’ opinion is not always a cohesive entity. Academics may disagree about how an issue ought to be understood, what the evidence shows and how best to tackle it. Equally, policy makers have to take a whole series of details into consideration when assessing advice. These factors may include probable public reaction, the cost of different proposals and what approaches can be readily taken. Such tensions have been seen during COVID-19, as governments across the world have grappled with trade-offs such as how best to balance the steps to contain the virus such as closing down shops and stay-at-home messages with the impacts on wider areas such as the economy, schools or mental health.
The complex relationship between academics and policy makers is an important theme of my book Financial inclusion: Critique and alternatives. Financial inclusion concerns the access that people have to financial services such as banking, savings and borrowing. One of the motives for writing this book is to bridge a gap between supporters and critics of financial inclusion. Many – but not all – of the critics of financial inclusion are academics. Conversely, many of the supporters are policy makers. Critics worry that increasing access to financial services merely exposes citizens to the risks associated with financial markets and undermines the welfare state. Supporters claim that financial exclusion imposes a poverty premium by denying access to mainstream financial services. For example, those people without a bank account cannot take advantage of the cheaper deals for electricity or heating available to those who can pay by direct debit. Lack of access to mainstream services can contribute directly to fuel poverty.
In the book I argue that dialogue between critics and supporters is important for the future of financial inclusion. Dialogue means that scholars should talk but also that they should listen. Academics should not be compelled to engage with public policy. Pursuing knowledge for its own sake is worthwhile even if it has no impact on policy. It is true that sometimes the most important impacts on daily lives emerge unexpectedly from the pursuit of pure knowledge. For example, research in pure mathematics provides the basis for the encryption that is used to protect millions of online payments or shopping. But these happy accidents do not undermine the point that academics ought to be allowed to study things for their own sake.
But, in many areas, academic study has direct relevance for policy and here academics can learn from others. Scholars have a pool of knowledge that they might usefully contribute but it is important to understand the best way that they can inform policy. This may mean familiarity with the policy-making process so that academics can recognise the stages at which their expertise can achieve the most impact. Scholars might also benefit from having a greater awareness of the many different issues that policy makers have to balance when deciding policy.
Given the claims that I make about dialogue more broadly, as well as in my field of financial inclusion, this also raises a challenge for myself. As part of this commitment, I have been awarded a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) Parliamentary Academic Fellowship based at the House of Commons Library’s Business and Transport Section between April 2021 and March 2022. I will be working on policy briefs in the area of financial inclusion. The topics will be shaped by Parliament’s needs and by unfolding events, and some may overlap with areas covered in my book. Many other situations will be shaped by unfolding events. I shall certainly be listening.
Rajiv Prabhakar is Senior Lecturer in Personal Finance at The Open University and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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