While Building Bridges allowed me a helicopter view of the research-policy interface, my subsequent involvement with a case study on the influence of research on policy changes in the Dutch disability insurance act (WAO) allowed me to look at the issue from a micro perspective.
Our team produced a working paper and an article in the International Social Science Journal on the case study and I am still amazed how closely the case study fit my overall understanding of how the research-policy interface works in general.Context proved to be of primary importance: we found very limited instrumental use of research results, some conceptual use, but primarily of the kind that supported the current policy agenda or underwrote a shift of perspective that was already ‘in the air’, rather than being agenda-setting was part of our conclusion. Another review of 25 years of WAO trends, research and policy (Dutch only) came to a very similar conclusion: Research offers policy-makers hardly any tangible hold. Policy development is dependent upon political choices and the practical intuition of the policy-maker, not upon scientific understanding (p.197).
But beyond that general insight, Building Bridges had argued that it makes sense to seriously look at many different aspects of the container term context, in other words, go beyond general conclusions like “it’s politics not science”. And it had argued for switching perspectives, i.c. not framing the interface in terms of “utilization” but in terms of “relationships”. Applying this to the case study resulted in an understanding of the Dutch welfare state as including experts and research as lubricants of the system. This – for want of a better term – ‘systemic’ role of research is not easy to pin down. But it does generate interesting new questions like “do close ties between research and policy make for more gradual, flexible and rational adaptations of (aspects of) welfare regimes or are they associated with a curbing of intellectually independent fundamental research and a concomitant neglect of the social science potential”?
Without a comparative understanding of the institutional infrastructure at the interface of social science and social and economic policy, hypotheses about their consequences for the performance and adaptability of social policy cannot be formulated. We suggested a framework for such comparisons based on literature on national ‘styles’ of policy-making and implementation. Maybe our particular suggestion wasn’t convincing enough? Anyway, I’m not aware of any follow up. Sure, the suggested line of research would not directly further our understanding of the factors that facilitate or obstruct the use of individual research efforts. However, it does promise to further our understanding of the meaning of the whole research production on a particular issue for a whole policy arena. Now that’s interesting enough isn’t it?