I am a sucker for a good news story about a new scientific discovery. Whether black holes or the mapping of the human genome, I find it both riveting and inspiring when longstanding mysteries of the universe are unlocked. I am certainly not alone, as I have heard many science enthusiasts speak about the privilege of bearing witness to the ever-accelerating advancements and learning we are achieving in the modern era.


For me, there is another factor driving my enjoyment of news stories about science — the refreshing amount of objectivity, evidence, and in-depth insights that typically accompany such articles or media clips. In particular, front and center in the dialogue surrounding virtually all media stories involving significant scientific advancement is a member of the academic community that is either driving the research or at the very least commenting on the implications of the discovery.  When it comes to the national dialogue on science, we have grown accustomed to having the university community providing measured and objective insights that help to raise the collective awareness and understanding of the American people.   


The same, unfortunately, is not always true when it comes to our national dialogue on public policy. Behind the scenes, examples abound of academia helping shape and inform public sector solutions. However, our national and public dialogue concerning policy matters too often feels devoid of the objectivity and robust analysis that is at the foundation of academia. Whether health care, immigration, gun control, national security, or the environment, the story that unfolds before the American people across various media channels is often enveloped in a back and forth political ping pong match between two polar opposite sides of the debate. In this context, there does not appear to be room for a robust dialogue among experts and thought leaders clarifying and discussing the various tensions and complexities of the issues at hand.


This dynamic is particularly frustrating for public sector practitioners. Close to the action, with responsibility for program design and delivery, public sector personnel see a very different and much more textured landscape than the high level narrative that plays out in the national media. Through the lens of the practitioner, policymaking and public administration is not about one side being 100 percent right and the other side 100 percent wrong. Instead, government operators exist in a world where issues have numerous tradeoffs with no absolutes and tremendous uncertainty. For these dedicated professionals, there is ongoing recognition and acceptance that the final outcome of the policy process will inevitably be imperfect, warranting ongoing refinement, rather than rebuke.  


While serving in the federal government for roughly 18 years, I often craved a louder voice of objectivity in our national dialogue on government and public policy – one that would balance high level, politically tinged sound bites with objective, evidence-based, and multi-faceted insights.  The prominence of academia in almost every article one reads about the most topical issues in natural science has inspired me to wonder if it is possible to achieve a similar reality when it comes to social science.


Discourse dynamics


Academia is no stranger to the topic of public policy. The path between lecture hall and government office is well-worn, with policymakers regularly switching between the two — particularly after the election of a new administration. A wide range of academic programs centered on public policy showcase the rich variety of issues and potential research projects that pour forth from government on a daily basis. With a seemingly increasing rate, public policy programs and institutes adorn universities across the country and the globe. Whether in public policy, administration, law, or political science, we find talented students and thoughtful faculty who are deeply engaged in exploring the conditions necessary for public sector excellence and the trade-offs and implications of the various paths toward that end.


From my time in government, I believe we need to find more channels to bridge these insights into government reform efforts. There are some promising developments on this front, including connectivity hubs for academia and government like theconversation.com, fedcafe.org and scholarsstrategynetwork.org. There is also former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker's recent launch of the non-profit Volcker Alliance, whose mission is to "encourage our public and educational institutions to give sustained attention to excellence in the execution of public policies." To complement and reinforce these activities, I believe it is important that we see a more regular drumbeat of academic input into the debates that  play out in our national media, shape public opinion, and therefore have critical impact on the direction and choices our Federal and local governments take.  


An intellectual injection


For academia, entering the national fray on policy debates such as health care reform, can bring with it some complications.  In particular, no matter how objective one's approach, it seems an almost impossible task to insert oneself into today's policy discussions without arousing the ire of one side of the aisle or the other. Any potential perception of bias, whether justified or not, certainly presents a danger to the objective status that so critical to academic credibility. However, if the alternative is that public debate lacks a clear voice of objectivity that can raise the quality of the discourse, it may be a risk worth taking.  


Academics in the scientific community are not immune to this risk. While commentary on the discovery of a new black hole is unlikely to raise any political red flags, the same cannot be said about the debate surrounding climate change. On this important topic, academia entered the public debate, bringing important depth and dimension to the national dialogue.


How can we establish the right conditions for experts in academia to more readily find themselves in the midst of the national dialogue on our most important policy debates while navigating the dangers of being drawn into the nation's political debates? How can we get to a place where you can be confident that the next media article you read or television program you watch covering the most vexing policy issue of the day will pivot from the political angle of the story to commentary from a member of the academic community providing a healthy dose of measured comment and insights that can help you better navigate the substance of the underlying issue?


Our system of higher education remains the envy of the world. Our campuses teem with life; a rich blend of academic achievement, sporting glory, and of hopes and dreams fulfilled. At the same time, confidence in government and our process for advancing progress through public sector-driven solutions is at all time low.


Perhaps it's time for both political parties and the national media to facilitate a safe harbor environment that enables greater academic input to our most challenging policy dilemmas. A stronger dose of objectivity into the public debate would not only lead to better policy outcomes, I believe it will help close the growing trust gap between the American people and our government.



Danny Werfel held leadership positions at the Office of Management and Budget during the administrations of both President Bush and President Obama as well as serving as the Acting Commissioner of the IRS. He currently serves as a Director at The Boston Consulting Group, Washington DC.


This comment is also published by the Centre for Public Impact, a BCG Foundation. 

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