Research Killers: Institutionalization
I was recently tagged in a Twitter discussion asking all 14 participants and their followers to define EBP (evidence based policing). Leaving aside the fact that my Twitter feed turned into Twitter Hell for about 24 hours until I begged to be left out, one interesting thing that occurred was a volley of questions from a criminology student in the U.K. In essence, what this person was asking was: who controls evidence based policing and how do we know we can trust them? The answer is: no one. Evidence based policing is just another word for a type of science -- police science or applied research science in the service of policing. Who owns science? No one. Now I realize there are some out there -- mostly those outside of actual science -- who would disagree and point to paid journals and grant formats, and individual and inter-institutional networks, science cabals, and ... and ... and ... to argue that science is a corrupt practice full of fraud and cronyism, etc., etc. I do not deny that bad things happen. However, unlike most endeavours in life, science has built in self-correcting mechanisms that ensure that legitimate ideas do eventually see the light of day, are debated, tested and contested, and that, in time, bad ideas get squashed (and scorned ... researchers like scorning bad ideas a lot). How does this self-correcting mechanism work? Through subjecting ideas to scrutiny and challenge, and, perhaps most importantly, through freedom of inquiry. What that means in the Canadian context is that no single group, agency, institution or government body, is telling policing researchers what they can work on, what they can publish, etc. What we have instead is a un-directed, sometimes anarchic mass (mess?) of independent researchers generating research often of interest to themselves and a few others. One of the criticisms of policing research generated through Public Safety Canada's Economics of Policing forums and found in subsequent publications produced at their behest, was the idea that what Canadians really needed to produce quality policing research -- which we admittedly lack in comparison to the U.S., the U.K. and Australia and New Zealand -- was a centralized bureuacratic institute that would direct a national or provincial research agenda. Because, as you know, Canadian governments are famous for being amazingly fabulous laboratories of innovation
(said no one ever). Aside from the fact that few, if any, policing innovations have come out of 'hot thought' groundswells produced by government ministers and bureaucrats in successive federal or provincial governments, there are other equally real inhibitory effects that institutionalization of research can produce.
Let's look at a couple: 1. government officials often lack the knowledge to discern real expertise in an area or lack thorough knowledge of specific fields within which to commission research. This problem is compounded by shifting of officials from portfolio to portfolio. 2. government expenditure processes are so notoriously rigid and bureaucratic that funding is often not available within a time frame to actually conduct the work. I was once given provincial funding at the end of December for a full-blown study to be completed by March 31st. We did it, but only because we started the study in October. 2a. because of this fact, highly qualified researchers may not apply for government funding, leaving the field open to those who might be far less qualified. 3. government decision-makers would rather be infected with the Ebola virus than receive bad press, thus any rigorous study on a topic of potential controversy is unlikely to be supported or funded despite the fact most controversial topics are also highly important community safety issues. 4. bureaucrats often develop long-standing relations with trusted researchers and consultants, which explains why government agencies produce a number of reports, events, etc. from the same names and/or groups, over and over again. 5. he who pays the piper calls the tune. The Conservative Harper government notoriously set limits on what government researchers (particularly in the environmental sciences) could do and say and killed funding to projects and funding mechanisms with which they took exception -- such as the Law Commission of Canada, which produced a lot of valuable research on criminal justice reform issues. Science, like modern economies, tends to thrive when individuals and groups are free to innovate within well-calibrated environments. The role of government in relation to science - and some would argue in relation to economics too - should be to provide the necessities to ensure the free flow of exchange, without over-regulating or under-regulating the marketplace of ideas. What they shouldn't do is attempt to interfere in that market by institutionalizing research and directing its activities. What we need is more funds to support creative domain experts focused on developing and testing interventions, as opposed to creating bureaucratic structures staffed with "senior officials", "policy analysts" and "advisors" who neither understand nor conduct applied research.