Can academics inform public policy?

I have recently been invited to present my ongoing work on measuring the impact of competition policy at a conference that was primarily aimed at and was run by public and private sector practitioners. The debate brought to surface the old question of what role academics can play in informing the public sector.

The question is very complex but one thing stands out: there is a clear inconsistency between the incentives of academics and what policy work typically requires. Most notably there is the obvious ‘publication bias’ issue. Academics want to get published and novel, innovative work is more likely to get published. Analyses using widely accepted and tested methods are less likely to excite many editors. On the other side, policy makers or enforcers are less likely to take risks by using innovative but relatively untested methods.
A couple of solutions seems to arise:
– The opportunity cost of working on age-old methods even if done on new topics is relatively high
for academics, who are under significant reassure to get published in world leading journals. Internalising these costs into contracts between the public sector and academics may be one solution.
– Practitioners should acknowledge that innovation in research methodology naturally comes from academics. Although in the short-run using new methods may be risky, in the long-run some of these methods may turn out to be robust, widely applicable, and most importantly better than the previous ones. A forward looking and dynamic policy-maker should be able to acknowledge this.
– If the practitioner is open to new methods, it should make sure that academics are well informed about issues that may prove to be critical for the success of these methods in real life applicability.
– Finally, academics whose work creates real life impact should be rewarded by their employers. Formal performance assessment systems that only award journal publications will forever remain a disincentive for academics to get involved in informing policy.


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