Should we make our stuff longer and more complicated?

August 5, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

The ivory tower fights back. Over on the Overseas Development Institute blog, Enrique Mendizabal is having a too much informationmoment of self doubt. As head of the ODI’s excellent Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme, Enrique usually tells researchers that if they want to have any influence on policy makers they need to KISS (Keep it Short and Simple – my acronym not his). As a result we have seen a ‘surge in briefing papers, opinion pieces, blogs and other multimedia communications’. But now he’s worried that he’s been too successful – is satisfying policy-makers’ preference for mental snacks rather than square meals making them flabbier?

“By always giving policy-makers what they want – shorter, simpler and easier things to read – are we implicitly accepting that they should not be held up to the same standards as other professionals? In short, are we unintentionally ‘dumbing down’ the audience? Somehow, we have come to accept that policy-makers in the development sector (and I include policy-makers of developing and developed countries in this group) don’t need to engage with the complexity of the problems they face and that it is enough for them to know what to do.”

But if policy makers are to do their job, they need to work out in the brain gym, and that’s partly researchers’ responsibility:

“Think tanks and other research organisations don’t exist only to do research and directly seek policy changes: they are also responsible, whether they like it or not, for the development of future generations of policy-makers and promoting the debate of new ideas and supporting the environment where these happen. If communicating in ever simpler and flashier terms goes as far as removing all engagement with the research itself (the definition of the problem, methods, models, frameworks, etc.), then we are no different from any other interest groups that influence policy based on their beliefs or allegiances.”

Interesting, although Enrique risks overstating how much influence researchers have, anyway. I’d make two additional points. Firstly, there’s an inherent conservatism about KISS: because tried, tested (and tired) ideas have been endlessly chewed over and communicated, they are much easier to boil down into bullet points than new ideas that are initially more confused and ill defined. A bullet point culture slows up the speed with which new ideas can enter the mainstream.

Secondly, the audience for research is not a simple polar “decision-makers and researchers”. There’s a crucial intermediate tier of special advisers and government officials sufficiently junior to still have time to read stuff. They’re the ones we should be insisting take the time to consider longer, more complex analysis.

All this of course assumes the research is worth communicating in the first place. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education casts serious doubt on that, lamenting the “avalanche of low-quality research” and pointing out that “Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals [two decades ago] were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further…”

Tenure_cartoonThe problem lies with an academic incentive system that rewards quantity, not quality, ensuring that “Aspiring researchers are turned into publish-or-perish entrepreneurs.” True that – I was recently talking to one such “aspiring researcher” at the local university who’s been told by his head of department not to write books, as papers can be turned around quicker and get more points in the reward system. Depressing. Still, Chris Blattman is relaxed.

August 5, 2010
Duncan Green