What comes first? Research evidence or ideology?

Research evidence is important for policy and decision making, we argue in our RAPID programme at ODI. Policies and decisions which are informed by research evidence lead to better decision and policies. Decision and policies which are grounded on the knowledge and the truth that comes from scientific research.

I thought about this while reading an article by George Monbiot in the Guardian Weekly some weeks ago: If you think we\’re done with neoliberalism, think again.

‘In 2012, the world’s 100 richest people became USD241bn richer. They are now worth USD1,9 trillion: just a little less than the entire output of the UK. This is not the direct result of chance. It is the direct result of policies’, he writes.

Those policies have been based also on research evidence which showed that less government, tax reduction, privatization, deregulation, trade liberalization, financial markets liberalization would give the rich the means to invest in economic activities which would provide jobs and increase incomes and consumption, etc. etc. etc. The result, according to Monbiot, ‘The [neoliberal] apostles have conducted a 30-years global experiments, and the results are now in. Total failure.’

How much ideology and how much evidence there is in the conclusion of Monbiot is difficult to say. A lot of both, I think. More ideology than evidence? I am not sure.

What the article of Monbiot reminded me was of the segment of the documentary about the financial crisis, Inside Job, which discussed how neoliberal ideology has corrupted the teaching and research in economics departments in top American universities. It showed cases of clear conflict of interests between academics teaching neoliberal economic theory, attracting funding to their faculties and schools, advocating for the truth of those theories and at the same time getting high paid jobs in the boards of private sector corporations or advisory positions in the state administration.  Ideology was driving evidence in the pre-financial crisis context.

The strengths of ideology was clear also in podcast of one of the public lectures at the LSE: Masters of the Universe Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics. Here, Lord Skydelsky, the biographer of Keynes and the author of Keynes: The Return of the Master and How Much is Enough? ,

told the audience an anecdote about a conversation he has had during a dinner with Nobel prize winner Joseph Stieglitz. Stieglitz admitted to him about the isolation he felt being at Columbia University where colleagues tells students not to attend Stieglitz’s course as his ideas and teaching are too radical.

It may seem obvious to state that ideology comes before research evidence. But what does this mean in our work and research around evidence based policy? What are the implications for the political economy analysis that we are advocating through the Knowledge, Policy and Power analysis to understand the politics, incentives and power tensions of the use of knowledge in policy making. Can the analysis of ideology be included in that approach? Or will it bring us too far? I guess we need always to compromise in our analysis with the time and resources that have been made available. I do not think we need to compromise with our ideology (and we all have one), we just need to state it clearly from the outset of our investigations.

Ideology influences the search of evidence, but evidence can also influence ideology. The evidence from the failure of neoliberalism that Monbiot describes in his article may well help to define a move progressive alternative ideology.

2 thoughts on “What comes first? Research evidence or ideology?”

  1. I like this idea – and it is a thought vein that is more implicit in the recent ODI-RAPID book than explicit. In some ways, I guess it comes down to understanding that ideology (the logic of thought or of representation) can be on the value-based side of evidence-based policymaking. This does not mean that values are outside of the influence of evidence – but only that we need to nuance the message and messenger so that it filters through to a value-based realm of thinking. I do not think this is a step too far.

    1. I agree David. I guess if we have to make our values explicit we can also do the same with ideology. What it more tricky I think is to investigate the ideology of others, the people we interview who may belong to a political system with a own ideology but may think differently, just they cannot say so.
      Another point, looking back at the international financial crisis one can see now how strongly an the neoliberal ideology influenced research , particularly with economics. The difficulty I see is that the extent of that ideological influence over economic policies can only be seen ex-post, when the disaster has occurred. In the middle of it it may be more difficult, I think.

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