Policy makers vs. Researchers

Gulzar Natarajan argues that development is mainly a faith based activity and that the kind of evidence generated in academia these days, only makes a marginal difference. His point is that many questions that researchers study are all obvious to the policy makers. They are not able to implement them because of the structural impediments.

Gulzar has a point but I heard the opposite too a lot from researchers, that policy makers are often not updated with latest developments in academic research because of their excessive focus on day-to-day activities etc. I personally have also encountered top bureaucrats in education department completely unaware of some of the influential studies in education. So, both are to at blame. One can explain this better with the cricket analogy.

Policy makers are like a "poor batsman" in the field, facing Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee, with a broken helmet, torn gloves, and under-fed. From their vantage point, it seems that they know all the "technique" (right things to do) but they are constrained by the aforementioned factors. All that they think they need is to be provided with these better conditions, and they will execute all the right techniques.

Researchers are like commentators sitting outside, partly oblivious to the batsman's condition. Their main job is to comment on the 'technique". From their vantage point, it looks like the batsman lacks technique, from the way they react to the balls.

Additionally, things move very slow in real life. So, it's like watching this batsman in slow motion, facing Yorkers. When watched in slow motion, even minute deviations that might not matter in the larger picture, seem pretty big (and become worth writing papers on).

The truth may be somewhere in between. The batsman may choose to believe that he knows all technique but the focus on getting around impediments like torn gloves etc. may have taken his mind off the technique, and hence might not have studied them in depth or be updated with latest developments.

Similarly, no matter how hard they try, it's difficult for commentators to completely appreciate the share of torn glove's factor in the lack of display of technique.

Interaction will help both - commentators will appreciate the real world factors, and policy makers will realize that they actually don't know as much technique as they think do. Their excessive focus on the day-to-day picture may have constrained their ability to look at the big picture and reflect. 

Even the best batsman in the world will gain from an external analyst, who dissects his moves closely, finds faults in patterns and suggests recommendations. The reason, why, as Atul Gawande says, even Olympic players have coaches. Needless to say, this is useful only if the batsman is in a position to implement, which many aren't due to the impediments like torn gloves and so on.

1 comment:

  1. I am getting to the point where I believe it is time to separate out the policy making, regulatory, and service provision functions in education (similar to the financial sector with Finance Ministry/RBI/Banks). Currently we have a situation in education akin to the Finance Ministry doing policy, regulation and running the operations of PSU Banks! The end result is that running operations takes 99% of the government's bandwidth, leaving almost nothing for policy and regulation (and to update themselves on "technique").