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Researchers need to learn political skills if they want to make a difference

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 24 August 2016

Titus Alexander. 
This week the government published its much postponed childhood obesity strategy, to a chorus of criticism from experts in public health. Doctors, health charities, and cancer and diabetes specialists have warned that the measures can’t stop the growing obesity crisis, which costs the NHS an estimated £4.2bn a year and is projected to cost £22.9bn per year by 2050. Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, has often said obesity will bankrupt the NHS unless action is taken now.
Researchers from CLOSER, a consortium of longitudinal studies led by the IOE, have documented the growing epidemic of obesity and concluded that the UK needs to target public health interventions at young people to stem the spread of obesity. Research into health promotion also shows what measures would reduce obesity. Government ministers and officials know this, and the evidence has been part of past consultations and guidance. But Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP who chairs the health select committee, says of the strategy: ‘big interests have trumped those of children’.
Bitter public health battles over tobacco, alcohol, pesticides and other enjoyable or useful poisons show how tenaciously industries fight to protect their products, jobs and profits. Businesses employ lobbyists to defend their interests.
In a democracy it is quite right that interest groups – including industry ­– should make their case. But the public, taxpayers, healthcare organisations and researchers often don’t have the resources or expertise in lobbying to make their case as powerfully as businesses. Industries with products in every high street, advertising across all media, and friends in high places can defend their interests more powerfully than the public.
So what is the role of education in this context?
There are hundreds of undergraduate courses in advertising and marketing, to teach people how to campaign on behalf of products and services, and some courses in lobbying and public affairs. Almost every school and college has courses in business studies, so that young people can learn how to compete in the market. This has almost certainly contributed to better products, services and productivity, and this has many benefits.
But not all products, services or growth are good. Some are harmful, and it is the role of politics to draw the line. Child labour, dangerous drugs and slavery are banned. The use of cars, medicine, alcohol and other products is controlled. Politics is the art of drawing lines, between what is allowed, banned or controlled. Well-drawn lines enable societies, their economies and natural environments to flourish, while reckless lines limit freedom, encourage corruption and wreck the environment.
Where and how lines should be drawn depends on circumstances. When sugar was scarce there was no need to obsess about obesity. So there is a constant political battle over where and how to draw the line over what is allowed, banned or controlled – the ABC of politics.
Researchers develop a great deal of knowledge about the science and social impact of behaviours, products and processes of all kinds, so that we know a lot, for example, about the effects of sugar, exercise and obesity.
But when it comes to the practical skills of drawing the line, most of the education is on the side of product promoters – advertising, marketing and product development to meet needs people didn’t know they had, what Vance Packard called the Hidden Persuaders. There are very few courses in political campaigning or practical politics for people who want to learn how to promote the interests of children, public health or needs which cannot be met by the market.
Education in a democracy needs to enable people to understand the complex political battles that take place over issues such as obesity and learn how to draw the line in ways that work best for the whole of society.
Politics is difficult and demanding, requiring skills and knowledge, which is why companies, pressure groups and party leaders employ professional campaigners. Researchers also need to learn basic political skills to make their findings accessible to the public and policy-makers, so that they can draw the line wisely. These skills include finding out who can use your research, how they get and assess information, and what they need to put it into practice. In other words, knowing who has power, how to influence them, and what institutions and resources are needed to use your research effectively. To do this you need to communicate, organise, negotiate, and above all develop relationships with key people for your field.
Almost every university has commercial units to help academics take research findings to market. But if you want to learn how to influence policy for the public good, rather than make money in the market, there is limited support. However, the impact assessment for the Research Excellence Framework now makes political skills essential in the human sciences. Funding for dissemination, influencing and support for implementation should be built into research funding. Since impact is 20% of the assessment, it is not unreasonable to suggest 20% of research grants could be allocated to impact, although the amount needed depends on the research topic.
Short courses in practical politics would help researchers direct their findings to people who can use them, and support effective implementation and evaluation. This will contribute to the Research Excellence assessment and also improve the career prospects of researchers. It will also help researchers influence the politics which secure funding for their work. The public benefits could be enormous. A robust strategy on obesity could save the taxpayer tens of billions of pounds, improve the quality of life for millions, and help the food industry discover healthier product lines.
But the wider reasons for developing education in practical politics are about the kind of society we live in and our quality of life. Aristotle described politics as the ‘master subject’ because it sets priorities for everything else, allocating resources to what is deemed important. For Aristotle the aim of politics was to obtain ‘the highest of all goods achievable’ and the creation of a good society. Because people disagree about what that is and how to achieve it, we need a plural, open and inclusive political system. How we achieve that is another question, but education has a central role in enabling people to learn how to take part in politics.
Titus Alexander’s book on Practical Politics: lessons in power and democracy aims to show why and how researchers, teachers and leaders at all levels of education need to include practical politics on the curriculum. It is published by Trentham/UCL IOE Press and can be pre-ordered from Amazon and educators can get inspection copies here.
Titus Alexander is founder of Democracy Matters and a Fellow of the Bernard Crick Centre for Understanding Politics at Sheffield University. He initiated Charter 99 for Global Democracy, which influenced the UN Millennium Summit, and was a founder member of the Parenting Education and Support Forum. He has contributed to IOE courses on global issues and practical politics.

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One Response to “Researchers need to learn political skills if they want to make a difference”

  • 1
    educationstate wrote on 25 August 2016:

    Aristotle in Ethics was critical of Sophists who proffered political advice without having had any real-life/relevant experience. This criticism and the reasoning behind it education researchers also need to take on board (as well as Titus’ point about the value in them possessing effective rhetorical strategies).