Monday, 19 March 2018

Understanding the research-policy relationship: the role of "technical interests"

In their excellent LSE Impact blog, on the relationship between research and policy 

 Christina Boswell & Kat Smith talk about "mutual constitution" of the 2 spheres. This is a huge step forward in the present understanding.

Many years ago, in a differently labelled social-scientific enterprise, scholars proposed the notion of "partisan mutual adjustment" as a guide to understanding this relationship. That was why the title of my book on thetopic was "Authorities and Partisans". The findings of the project that gave rise to the book were totally at odds with any of my hypotheses. Scientists (the "Authorities") often behaved like partisans and participants in policy debate played a very important role in the consititution of knoowledge claims as facts. As Boswell & Smith point out, this kind of thinking can help us to a much more sophisticated understanding of  a present day obsession: "Impact". It is in fact rather coounter producitve to work with an image of science as a hammer having "impact" on policy in any simple way.

There was in my opinion one element left out from the blog, however. Of course there is not space to go through everything in a short article. But I am gonig to try & fill this out, using a lot of extracts from my paper "Do we need a Strong Programme in Medical Sociology" I wont give the URL because it is still paywalled about 100 years after it was published. Oe reason I want to do this is that since both my research and even Kat's great PhD work was done, genetic research has risen to much greater prominance and I believe that "technical interests" are very much in play here. For example, there are no clear policy implications to, for example, finding such as educational attainment being partly due to a bunch of genes. In general, genetic research has little potential for impact and yet it received massive funding and gets published in the highest impact (i  the other sense) journals. Interestingly, private biotech companies have been withdrawing fundinig from genetic research as they realise how ittle infleunce genes actually have on health conditions. This leaves, of course, the massive ideological  benefiit of allowing governments to cut back on (obviously) educational spending, or indeed to implement policies that discourage childbearing in poorer people. I dont want to play this down at all. But the "technical interest", that centres on those who build the large expensive machinery needed to sequence genes and those who develop methods to make sense of the resulting data, are aso I think very important and somewhat neglected.

By technical interest is meant the interest of occupational subgroups in creating a continuing market for the specific techniques and forms of expertise of which they can claim 'ownership'. For example, experts in the anatomy of plants were threatened, as Nicolson (1984; 1989) has shown, by a move towards the use of plant ecology as the most important form of classifying plants and understanding soil fertility. Another example, not yet studied systematically"*, might be drawn from the recent history of reproductive technology. Obstetrics has faced some degree of crisis due to the compression of childbearing into women's healthiest years. The resulting decline in the amount of medical intervention required is arguably one reason for the rapid growth of interest in infertility. Although far fewer women are affected, those who see their infertility as a problem that doctors can solve require a great deal of medical intervention over an extended period of time.

The model for studying how the production of scientific knowledge is influenced by technical interests is one which regards scientists as actively 'doing interest-work', that is, mobilising a variety of other social groups (and being mobilised by them). These processes of enrolment and alliance profoundly influence the knowledge claims made by scientists. Some of these claims go on to become facts.

In his work on biometrics, Mackenzie (1981)  compares biometry in the early 1900s to a new political party which has to build its network of supporters and gain resources for its tasks. In order to do this, biometry, or any other new and/ or struggling discipline, must demonstrate the utility of its ideas and measures to more powerful interest-groups and/or groups or individuals with command of resources. Accordingly, biometry linked itself to the Eugenics movement, as Mackenzie shows.

 A scientific team quite often finds itself in the position of having a solution to a problem no one has, or a product with no market. So as well as translating their products to fit the interests of powerful groups, scientists may work at translating the goals of these groups to fit better with what the scientists have on offer. 'If you give greater priority to this issue' a group of scientists may argue with a struggling sub-profession (for example a medical sub-specialty), 'we have a hot new technique (or machine) which will enable your weak, low-status segment of the profession of medicine to gain far more influence and status.' In such cases it is not only a case of selling one's idea or device as better suited to existing purposes of other groups, but of persuading other groups that they have interests they didn't even know about before. 

Aronson (1982) gives an excellent example of scientists being enrolled by other interest groups and the resultant shaping of knowledge claims in her study of nutrition science in the 1870s and 1880s in the United States. At this time: liberal economists and statisticians hoped to end class conflict by developing objective criteria of the adequacy of wages At the same time, the young discipline of nutrition science was struggling to establish its credentials as a respectable science worthy of funded teaching and research posts in US universities. The upshot of the negotiations between interested groups was that: the alliance between nutrition science and labour statistics gave birth to the definition of nutrition as a "social problem" inextricably tied to labour reform. Accordingly, the first dietary survey conducted in the USA, in 1885, concluded that: 

"existing wages would be adequate if workers learned to eat scientifically" 

Thus the leading exponent of the new science, Atwater, could claim that nutrition: 

"could solve the labour problem . . . within the existing class structure and without decreasing the profits of capital and therefore deserved public support."

Atwater correctly interpreted the interests of various powerful groups involved in both the policy debate on 'the labour problem', the debate on nutritional requirements, and the debate on the status of nutrition as an academic discipline. 

These are just a few examples of the wide range of "technical" and "professional interests" that have linked scientists and political interest groups

Aronson, N. (1982) Nutrition as a social problem: a case study of entrepreneurial

strategy in science. Social Problems, 29, 474-487.

Mackenzie. D. (1981) Statistics in Britain 1865-1930: The Social Construction of

Scientific Knowledge. Edinburgh University Press.

Nicolson. M. (1984) The Development of Plant Ecology. 1790-1960. Unpublished
Ph.D. Thesis, University of Edinburgh.

Nicolson. M. (1989) National styles, divergent classifications: a history of French and
American plant ecology, in L. Hargen. R. A. Jones. A. Pickering (eds.).

Knowledge an

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