Skip to main content

Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin

Trinity Menu Trinity Search

Lost in Translation: Why researchers and policy makers need new ways of talking to each other

From Lost in Translation to Gained in Translation, Mary Doyle, Public Policy Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub, tells us why the research community and the public policy community need to find new ways of talking to each other.

Mary, what’s a public policy fellow doing at the Trinity Long Room Hub?

Through my fellowship, I’m looking at the issues which impact on the interaction between research, and particularly Arts and Humanities research, and the public policy sphere. I believe that this has particular resonance for the Arts and Humanities community given the key contribution that Arts and Humanities make to societal wellbeing. This has never more important than at the present moment when we are trying to find a way through the global crisis which is the Covid-19 pandemic and we have to reflect profoundly on what the future could and should look like.

You’ve worked in various government departments, tell us about your career in policy.

I studied at the University of Limerick - taking the then very unusual interdisciplinary course in European Studies. When I graduated in 1977, I joined the Irish Civil Service, working there until my retirement two years ago.

Most of my career was spent in the Department of the Taoiseach - which has a key role at the centre in managing the overall system of Government - and latterly in the Departments of Health, Children and Education and Skills. I am particularly interested in the management of complex issues, or “wicked problems” as they are sometimes called, across Government and the role that research and evidence can play in helping to understand and resolve societal challenges.

What is it about the Arts and Humanities that you believe is valuable for policy making?

The Arts and Humanities have made a significant contribution to the most pressing social, political, cultural, technological and environmental issues of the 21st century. A lifetime of working on big societal challenges in Ireland makes me believe that we all stand to gain significantly if we can find a way to get the Arts and Humanities to honour policy and vice versa.

The case for this is very well made by the influential League of European Research Universities (LERU) which published an advisory paper in 2012, entitled Social Sciences and Humanities: Essential Fields for European Research and in Horizon 2020 which argued that Social Science and Humanities (SSH) research is of vital importance to the future of Europe as follows: “SSH researchers study the human aspects of the world and they generate important new knowledge which has a deep and intrinsic value. Analysis of the past and understanding societies, beliefs and values can be a critical factor in understanding how we can respond effectively to these continuing challenges. SSH research enables us to have a greater understanding of change and adaptation as a process and imagining future scenarios”.

In the Irish context, the Irish Humanities Alliance (IHA) has also underlined this point in an important contribution to the debate on the island of Ireland in its recent publication By Imagination We Live - a Strategy for the Humanities 2020-2025. In publishing this document, the IHA aims to demonstrate and articulate the value and diversity of the established and emerging humanities disciplines and the critical role they play in understanding the human experience through history, culture and language.

Individual Higher Education Institutions and the Irish Research Council have pointed to the important connect between social change/improving lives and making and influencing policy.

So, what’s the problem?

A fundamental issue arises at the outset about the nature of the current relationship between Arts and Humanities and policymaking - a relationship which is not without some inherent tensions and difficulties.

In a recent blog published on the London School of Economics website, Frans Brom, an ethicist and Secretary of the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy, posed a series of important questions about the future role which the humanities can play in support of public policy that aims to tackle societal issues. He asked some fundamental questions about the relationship between the humanities and public policy and noted in particular a lack of positive interaction between the humanities and the policy-making area.

Brom identifies two reasons behind this lack of interaction - firstly, ideology and, secondly, the absence of organised interaction practice. In relation to the first, he argues that “ideologically, scholars claim that the public task of the humanities is to unmask power structures not to support them. Politics is a battle, policymaking is dirty and expertise is interest in disguise”.

Professor Brom argues that to influence policy effectively, the humanities must transcend individualism. He goes on to suggest that this would mean not only abandoning “outsider” perspectives focusing solely on criticism of power through individual political action, but also setting up institutions to pursue systematic dialogue with policymakers and the other sciences and to develop the expertise needed to conduct these conversations.

I would like to pick up on this second point and look in more detail about what a stronger architecture to support this dialogue might look like in Ireland. In doing so, I hope it will be of value to an Arts and Humanities community which sometimes can feel marginalised or under siege and help a more positive narrative for their disciplines and contribution in what, I acknowledge, is a very crowded space.

What can policy makers and Arts and Humanities researchers do about it?

The challenge now is to think about how to design and implement the practical steps needed to develop and deepen this interaction which to date has received remarkably little attention in Ireland.

On the practical side, there are virtually no organised intermediate structures where expertise in the humanities has any systematic interaction with other disciplines in developing policy advice. Even within the humanities, there are very few institutions where experienced scholars develop systematic interactions with policy, or where subject specific research is combined with knowledge intensive interdisciplinary cooperation.

To make progress on this agenda, I suggest that action needs to be initiated, led and managed in three distinct but overlapping spaces - in the research community itself and particularly in the Higher Education institutions, in our institutions of democracy - specifically in the Oireachtas and in Government Departments - and in the combined efforts of the Research Funders. Then all three have to design an architecture which enables them to engage positively with each other.

In terms of initiatives in Higher Education, what can we learn from other countries?

Drawing on international experience, there are some helpful models which can point to useful directions to action and experimentation. Examples are mainly drawn from the UK but I am looking globally for other examples of good practice.

So in the Higher Education space, we can see the establishment of the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) in the UK to harness the collective research power and expertise of the member universities and to make it easier for policymakers to draw on it to improve policy.

The Alliance for Useful Evidence has been established at UCL , hosted by Nesta, that champions the smarter use of evidence in social policy and practice and is a useful potential roadmap for the Arts and Humanities.

At individual University level, Policy@Manchester and the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath are good examples of an architecture to enable effective research collaborations that contribute to tackling public policy challenges in the UK and beyond.

What about government and funders, what can they do?

The second pillar focuses on the institutions of democracy - in this context the Oireachtas and Government Departments. Most Irish Government Departments have published data and research strategies so it would be relatively easy to augment these on the lines of the UK model whereby Government Departments publish short Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) which tell the research community in an accessible way the pressing policy questions which are live in the system.

Finally to the role of Funders - principally the Funding Councils where there has been some thought given to how to promote better inter disciplinarity and multi disciplinarity. The 2014 review of the UK Research Councils by Sir Paul Nurse and the work of Geoffrey Crossick - former Chair of the Advisory Board of the Long Room Hub and co author on a report on understanding the value of Arts and Culture - gives us valuable food for thought.

There are also important macro actions to be taken at the Higher Education Institution and Funder level in order to support this agenda including the nature of incentives and rewards and there needs to be a particular focus on a whole system approach to what are complex and difficult issues.

Training is important here and a good example is the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council “Engaging with Government” training course which aims to:

  • Encourage academics to see opportunities where their research could make a valuable contribution in a public policy context
  • Challenge researchers to think in more depth about the policy process and the role of research within it
  • Increase the influencing and communication skills needed to achieve this.

In conclusion, there is a big agenda here which goes to the very heart of how business is understood and organised in Arts and Humanities research and its interaction with society and societal challenges now and in the future.

Mary Doyle

Mary Doyle is a Public Policy Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub. Ms Doyle retired from her role as Deputy Secretary General in the Department of Education and Skills in 2018. She joined the Department in 2012 where she had responsibility for Higher Education Policy, Funding and Legislation later taking responsibility for Further Education. She worked for many years in the Department of the Taoiseach, acting in a variety of roles including corporate affairs, arts and culture and economic and social policy roles. She acted as Secretary to a range of Cabinet SubCommittees including Infrastructure, Social Inclusion, Health and the Economy and chaired the Senior Officials Groups which supported these SubCommittees. She also worked in the Departments of Health and Department of Children during the course of her career. She is currently a Board member of Science Foundation Ireland and of The Wheel.