Monday, 19 October 2009

Tanks for the thinking

Congratulations to the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Centre for Social Justice, joint winners of the think-tank of the year award tonight as Prospect's annual (though rather more abstemious) pointy-head oscars at the RSA in London. [UPDATE: See the Prospect blog for more on the awards].

The IFS may have been on home territory once a financial and fiscal crisis hit but they had certainly risen to the occasion. With the IFS in place, plans for an office of fiscal responsibility seemed superfluous, the judges suggested. The Centre for Social Justice were cited less for published output as for policy impact, on the opposition in particular.

The publication of the year well deserved by CentreForum for its 'A Balancing Act report on the public finances, with the judges noting how often our only third party think-tank punches above its weight on key policy issues.

And there were specialist awards on the environment for the ippr for its climate change work, particularly the global ; for RUSI on foreign policy think-tankery.

Richard Reeves' Demos won the 'one to watch' award for always and everywhere being right in the centre of the political melee. There was not a formal award for the highest profile think-tank yet to launch, but there was little doubt that it would have gone to Reeves' ex-colleague Phillip Blond, going public with his new ResPublica outfit next month to continue his Red Tory argument.

The judges were rather up-beat about the state of the think-tank scene, having previously tended to use the occasion to lecture the think-tanks on what they were getting wrong. (Perhaps rumours of a Magazines for Pointy-Heads Award counter-strike had a salutary deterrent effect).

The sponsor's representative, a Mr Jeremy Bentham of Shell, will surely never again be able to find a full room in London quite so tickled by his name, with no taxidermist required. He did not appear to have a Mr John Mill of Goldman Sachs in tow, but went for the shameless crowd-pleasing tactic of quoting Schopenhauer at us all.

Guest speaker David Willetts continued his journey away from Thatcherism - whether his own or his party's - by going out of his way to declare that the Conservative Party if elected to government would have no interest in a divide and rule approach to think-tanks - which said that "some of you are with us and some against us". That included an explicit pitch to Demos to mirror the post-1997 example of the Social Market Foundation by fully jumping ship to the centre-right, but one could sense that Willetts was imagining a much bigger tent, perhaps with designs not just on the ippr but the Fabians too!

Willetts wanted to see more attention paid to how think-tanks and academics could seek to give academic research more public and policy impact, correctly critiquing the way in which the research assessment exercise valued peer-reviewed articles in peer-review journals, but did not value effective public-facing work in the public sphere. This was part of why quite important policy implications of a carefully researched and modelled piece would often receive just a couple of sketchy paragraphs.

I think Willetts is right about this, though how to turn that widely shared aspiration into practice is a difficult issue. One can understand the resistance in academia to political interference, a deprofessionalising target culture or a narrow 'business case' which would crowd out pure thought, all arguments voiced in the "against impact" argument of Jonathan Derbyshire on the New Statesman blog.

But that can not be the end of the debate either, and particularly not in those social sciences which were largely created to explore and influence public policy questions, and to explain them to a broad public. Nowhere was this more true than in economics, in the age of Marshall and then Keynes. Whether contemporary academic economics aspires to speak to current policy. So if academic work is ever more narrowly specialised, and faces in to the academy and not out, then an important public function of the social sciences would be lost.

My blogging here for Next Left, along with Matthew Taylor's at the RSA, got honourable mentions for the energetic use of new media in the pursuit of ideas, which at least suggested that the judges had also thought about how to ensure their messages might carry through the political blogosphere too.

1 comment:

Aardvark said...

Surely the fact that IPPR were content to accept the award for best climate change think tank of the year at an event sponsored by Shell instantly disqualifies them from this award?