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A response to PM Modi’s tweet about wanting input from universities and think tanks

“Sadly, role of think tanks has not increased to provide critical inputs to policy making. Universities must also play a big role in this.”

This was a tweet from @narendramodi

It’s refreshing to get tweets of substance from the leader of the largest democracy.

But let’s unpack the tweet. [Knowledge] inputs are critical to [effective] policy making. Think tanks which are supposed to perform this function have failed to deliver, because they have not grown to meet the increased needs. Universities must start contributing to policy making, perhaps assuming a role bigger than that of the think tanks.

This is a subject we at LIRNEasia have given much thought to. In fact, we wrote up a paper entitled ““Research to Policy south” network: A mechanism to enhance and sustain contributions to policy from think tanks and university faculty” and presented it in New Delhi at a conference convened in March 2014 by the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) and the International Development Research Center of Canada (IDRC).

[Knowledge] inputs are critical to [effective] policy making.

Agree. Paper takes this as the starting point.

Think tanks which are supposed to perform this function have failed to deliver, because they have not grown to meet the increased needs.

Did not address either the aspect of increased demand from the policy side or whether or not think tanks have grown to meet the needs. Difficult to document increased demand, though when the PM tweets that input is needed, one should expect demand to increase.

How responsive have the think tanks been? It is easy to document growth, but more difficult to document efficacy. There is an issue about funding that affects the growth of think tanks. On one hand, it’s very difficult to raise money for the supply of public goods in our region. On the other, there is bipartisan hostility to raising money from outside. Obviously, funding is a critical input to growth and efficacy. If Modiji wishes to have critical input from think tanks, he may consider addressing this problem. There should be public or private sources that can supply funding for think tanks without imposing rigid ideological and other conditions. There should be a rethinking of the approach to funding from outside the government, foreign or domestic.

Universities must start contributing to policy making, perhaps assuming a role bigger than that of the think tanks.

Here is where the paper is most relevant. However, our argument is that it’s faculty members in universities rather than universities who should contribute:

A university can, and should, create an environment conducive to individual faculty members (and perhaps some students) taking research to policy. But as an organization, it cannot advocate this or that policy position. The necessarily contested nature of knowledge processes within the university would preclude the university as an organization from arriving at a common policy position, expect in rare instances where the interests of the university as an organization are at stake. Individual faculty members have no such constraints, unless they have been imposed by the university or the government. The emergence of think tanks that function outside the university structure must be understood in the above context.

The paper goes on to say

Even in well-resourced universities in developed countries, not all faculty members take research to policy. The chances of good research findings being communicated in ways that will effectively inform policy processes by university-based scholars are much less in developing Asia. Given the internal red-tape and related dysfunctions of universities, it is unlikely that creation of specialized information-broker units such as that found at the London School of Economics and Political Science will provide a solution.

The independent think tanks that are now active in the region have policy influence as their raison d’etre and attract the kinds of people who are motivated to influence policy. However, given the inadequacies of domestic university education, these organizations have to engage in considerable retraining activities to bring recruits from domestic universities up to the required levels of knowledge and skills.

The paper then goes on to provide answers to the following questions:

What can be done to leverage [the] efforts [of think tanks] in ways that will also yield measurable contributions to policy from university faculty? How can policy-oriented faculty within universities be supported and encouraged? What can be done to help universities produce graduates who are better equipped to perform well in the research-to-policy arena?

“Research to Policy south” network: A mechanism to enhance and sustain contributions to policy from think tanks and university faculty.

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