It’s Purely Academic…..


This is a fairly common derogatory phrase in the UK – meaning whatever is being talked about is somehow irrelevant to real life and of no real consequence. ( I am not sure how current it is in other countries).

I was constantly irritated when this phrase was used by non-academics (and I’ve even heard academics use it) to imply that “theory” has nothing to do with reality and practice, and is some esoteric practice devoid of practical content. But academics may be just as much to blame for the prevalence of this idea that “theory” is detached from reality, as the following incident shows.

I recently sent out an appeal to some academic friends and colleagues for collaboration on a very relatively small project, but one of immense practical significance.

Since 1998 and the first “Comprehensive Spending Review” the UK’s New Labour government has been experimenting with medium-term, or multi-year, budgeting. One of the principle aims of this experiment is to establish more stable financial planning for government and pubic service bodies over more than one year.

This is not entirely novel, in that since the mid-1960s UK governments have annually published Budgets which included notional forecasts for years 2 and 3 in advance. The difference with the new ‘spending review’ process is that these future years are supposed to be taken seriously and be actually fixed in advance.

So I proposed a simple analytical exercise: given that in the new system the 2nd year (at least) was supposed to be fixed in each Spending Review how much did year 2 vary from the supposed budget, compared to year 2 under the old system (covering 10 years of each).

The implications of such an analysis are potentially huge – not just because the UK government claims their system makes a real difference to how public money is spent, but because governments around the globe have shown interest in this experiment and in many cases will spend a lot of time and resources trying to emulate it because it supposedly “works”.

So imagine my amazement when I get the following response from a senior academic: “This sounds far too applied to me. Can’t see any theoretical contribution emerging, which would get it into a decent journal, although there is an accounting element to it. This is not what we do ……”

I now have somewhat more sympathy with those who talk about “purely academic” concerns. The fate of billions of pounds of public spending, and the consequences for millions of people, in the UK alone, is apparently “too applied” for these august colleagues. The global interest in this UK experiment in multi-year budgeting “would not get into a decent journal” – as if this were the sole purpose of academic research.

This attitude could be blamed on the pernicious effects of things like the “Research Assessment Exercise” (RAE) in the UK but the truth is that far too many academics adopt this aversion to anything remotely practical without any external compulsion. A few years ago a very senior academic in the Public Administration told me that we – academics – have no place advising policy-makers and practitioners on what to do, as our sole role was to develop theory.

It is a sad state of affairs, especially in “applied” academic areas like business, management and public administration, that such a ludicrous division between theory and practice can be supported. Don’t misunderstand – I think theory development is important. But I think it it needs two crucial links to reality: (1) it needs to be tested against real world evidence and (2) it also needs to lead to relevant practical conclusions.

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About Prof. Colin Talbot

Professor of Government (Emeritus). Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
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4 Responses to It’s Purely Academic…..

  1. Sandra Beach says:

    We have the same thing in Australia. I was recently shamed as being too practical. My crime was to develop a model of stakeholder classification that was too “practically” focused.

    However one agency has found it immensely useful in their planning processes and communicating how stakeholder engagement works in their organisation.

    As someone said to me “God forbid you do something useful in academia”!

  2. Mark Reed says:

    My perception is that the tide is slowly turning. Thanks to the sorts of changes that we are seeing from the tops of the Research Coucils, strengthened by Mandelson’s emerging agenda for academia, there is an increasing focus by funders on making research relevant to Government and taxpayers – i.e. applied. History shows us that academics follow the funding, and my involvement in RCUK’s Rural Economy and Land Use programme has shown me that even people who don’t necessarily believe in this sort of agenda are willing to get involved in knowledge exchange activities if it can bring in big money.

    There used to be a culture where pure research was regarded as the only “real” research, and applied research was somehow second best (and knowledge exchange was for anyone who couldn’t actually do research). Now in many fields, applied and pure research are perceived to be on an equal footing in terms of the esteem associated with them, and knowledge exchange is increasingly seen as part of what academics are expected to do. With the advent of the REF, it will be almost impossible to get a 4* rating unless you’re making an impact in terms of communicating relevant research far and wide. Egotistical beings as academics tend to be, I would be suprised if this carrot doesn’t change the minds of even some of the most skeptical, assuming they lose the war they’re currently trying to wage to retain research for research sake.

  3. Pingback: Unified Discussion Social structure formation. - Page 2

  4. colinrtalbot says:

    Reblogged this on Colin Talbot and commented:

    This was oemthing I wrote on Whitehall Watch 4 years ago, but its says something useful about my approach to applied social sciences.

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