How can social science researchers most effectively make a contribution to public policy formation?  The recent debates surrounding how best to address the fiscal crisis facing Ireland cast a spotlight on two challenges that confront researchers who attempt to intervene in the wider public discussion.  First, there is a set of problems surrounding the ways in which evidence – particularly quantitative evidence – is mobilized by researchers and taken up by the media and others who shape public opinion.  Second, there is a more philosophical question about whether or not it is possible, or desirable, for social scientists to adopt a value-neutral position.

Quantitative analysis is a valuable and powerful tool, but it is also a dangerous temptation to policy makers – and some social scientists – who want to avoid any qualitative discussion about what the numbers represent, or to foreclose debate about more difficult questions surrounding the kind of society we want to have.  Quantitative findings appear (and are sometimes presented as) unassailable, when in fact they are always the outcome of a whole set of qualitative decisions about what variables to include in the analysis, how best to measure them, how to deal with shortcomings in data availability and measurement, and speculation about the possible impact of unmeasured and unknown factors.  The problem is not that these qualitative judgements are an integral part of the process of quantitative analysis; it is, rather that most consumers of the evidence (including many social scientists) don’t have the technical skills necessary to evaluate them when presented with complex tables of coefficients.

This creates all sorts of space for those who want to foreclose debate by claiming the evidence is definitive (if they like the political implications), and leaves those who have a different political objective floundering about in a misguided search for alternative, but equally ‘objective’ findings.  If there appear to be too many different claims about the evidence, then in the public imagination social scientists are brought into disrepute, when in fact such disagreements are part and parcel of good scientific practice.  The debate about the extent (and causes) of the public sector pay ‘premium’ has been a masterclass in these pitfalls.  Many public sector occupations simply don’t exist in the private sector.  Are the people who hold those occupations paid too much?  While quantitative estimates controlling for factors like level of education, years of experience and so on can help to inform the discussion, they cannot provide the last word, partly because of the scope for disagreement about what the important controls are and how they should be measured, but more importantly because the public debate is embedded in a much wider set of political questions about what kind of society we want to have.

There is a fundamental political difference between those who believe in sustaining public spending in order to promote social cohesion and minimize social inequality, and those who believe that retrenching public expenditure is the best way to promote well-being by improving efficiency and fostering economic growth.  The public discussion about how well we value and remunerate our public servants has been part and parcel of this wider debate.  Can social scientists intervene without taking sides?  There is a classic article by the sociologist Howard Becker that addresses this question.  He argued that, when we fail to acknowledge the political context, social scientists unthinkingly take the side of those who are the top of the ‘hierarchy of credibility’ – those who have the power to define their position as ‘common sense.’  The implication is not that we can happily distort our research findings to suit our political agendas, but rather that we fool ourselves if we fail to acknowledge the ways in which our interventions bolster one side or the other in the public morality play.

So how should social scientists cope with the two problems I have identified in seeking to inform policy?  I have two suggestions.  First, we should adopt a stance of humility with respect to our evidence.  This means not presenting our findings in ways that attempt to foreclose discussion and debate – as happens when, for example, we take the tone of an ‘expert’ uniquely qualified to make sense of the numbers.  Second, we should always explicitly place our recommendations in the context of the political values that frame public discussion.  This can either take the form of openly acknowledging our own political preferences (and reflecting on how those preferences inform our intervention), or if we prefer a more neutral approach, we can present a range of options that policy makers might pursue, depending on the kind of society they want to bring about.  But pretending that our interventions are value-free just won’t do.

Jane Gray