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Bringing knowledge and policy together

GB Geo-Blog

Bringing knowledge and policy together

As I look around the world, I see a series of challenges that require an extraordinary combination of political skill and scholarly insight. Take the debt woes in Greece, Portugal, and perhaps Spain. These are countries that are living beyond their means. How can we move them, and the European Union as a whole, to recalibrate their societies to maintain social-market humanism in affordable and sustainable ways? To even begin to answer this question, one needs access to deep research on economy, sociology, and history. One also needs the political instincts of a Bismarck, a Metternich, or a Talleyrand to sell a viable new solution across an anxious European landscape.

Similar things could be said about nuclear proliferation and environmental degradation. To get a handle on both issues and understand root problems, one requires deep knowledge of physics, biology, political science, and game theory. Political negotiations surrounding arms control and climate change are tortuous, complex, and unpredictable. Here again, the successful strategist will need intellectual insight and political prudence.

In theory, modern bureaucracies are designed to bring all of these specializations and skills together. In practice, they do nothing of the sort. Every large bureauracy that I have studied (from the EU and the United States to modern corporations and world-class universities) produces fragmentation, specialization, and cross-area rivalry. In particular, the knowledge producers are rarely connected to the policy actors. The people who research understand very little about how big policy decisions are made. The people who make policy decisions understand very little about the research behind their decisions. Think, for example, of the paltry interchange between those who set education policy and those who actually educate in our societies. Or, even more startling, look at the gap between those who make war and those who actually fight war.

The time has come to reinvent bureauracy and the organization of knowledge for policy purposes. Here are three hypotheses to ponder:

1. We need to create more cross-field literacy and less specialization in our best educated young people. The most effective leaders need to know how to ask the right questions, and whom to ask.

2. We need more small institutions, not fewer big institutions. Size is often a disadvantage. It creates more complex lines of communication, more fragmentation, more separation. Cooperation requires sustained conversation. That occurs best in small communities.

3. We need to stop our search for simple answers with quick solutions. Nothing worth doing is accomplished in a short time frame. We need more patience. We need more willingness to invest in the long-term. We need to make more short-term sacrifices in the present for the future.

Our contemporary challenges are great, but so are the collective capabilities of the most advanced societies. The problem is not brains or money or strength. The problem is organization. The problem is that we are not doing enough to bring knowledge into the service of policy. Producers of knowledge and makers of policy must devise new ways to work together.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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  1. Jason Leighton April 29, 2010

    Hello Professor Suri, this is your former student Jason Leighton.

    I could not agree more.

    I believe that the fragmentation brought on by increased specialization is one of the key problems we face as a nation (quite possible as a global community) today. It pervades not only institutions such as businesses, government bureauracies, or learning institutions, but more importatntly the mind. This not only encourages people to believe that their mode or discipline of thinking (i.e. history vs. economics) is correct, but to immediately discredit contributions that could be made from specializations other than their own. This leads to a narrow approach to problem solving that focuses on maintaining the status quo, rather than finding the creative solutions we need.

    I also agree with the point you touched on about living beyond our means. If this is true for Portugal, Greece and Spain, it goes double for the United States. Due to America’s unique circumstances (especially after 1945) we have enjoyed unprecedented economic successes. As a result, Americans, as well as most modernized societies, have become accustumed to almost constant economic growth. This has given rise to a completely unrealistic sense of economic entitlement. As you said, we want a quick fix and a return to the status quo, but we are not willing to make even short term sacrifices (i.e. paying taxes) to achieve it.

    I think these two points shed an interesting light and draw a telling parallel to the current economic situation. As our institutions have become more specialize and narrowly focused, so has our economy. Having such an enormous portion of our economy focused on finance (I believe I recently read that over 60% of our GDP come from finance alone) has not only left us severely vulnerable to crisis level recessions, but ill equipped to divise creative solutions to the challenges thereof. Compounding this is our refusal to accept the reality of our need to make sacrifies to overcome these challeges. It seems to me that in our comfortable economic positions, we have forgotten both the extreame sacrifices and creativity/flexibility that were required to become so affluent in the first place.

    My question to you would be, what means or programs do you see to connect our need for creativity and innovation with policy makers and citizens at large? How do we mobilize the political, economic, and social will to find new solutions rather than simply searching for the quickest and easier way back to business as usual? What ways would you suggest to facilitate this multi-fielded connection between craetive policy MAKERS and creative policy THINKERS? I realize that is a hefty question, but I was wondering what small insights you could offer.

    p.s. I enjoy the blog Professor. Mini Suri lectures are a nice break in the work day, haha.

  2. TomPier May 7, 2010

    great post as usual!

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