State News

Panel explores ways lawmakers, researchers can collaborate on policy aims

Lawmakers and researchers discussed barriers to increased collaboration between the university and state government Monday at a panel discussion.

Image By: Andrew Bahl

Researchers must make sure their work is relevant and accessible to lawmakers, according to a panel of policy experts and politicians hosted on campus Monday.

The panel, hosted by the LaFollette School of Public Affairs, comes as Wisconsin lawmakers are formulating the 2017-’19 biennial budget, as well as their policy goals for the upcoming session. Many university researchers have been active in discussions at the Capitol, including those surrounding performance-based funding for higher education and the self-funding insurance model, both proposed in the current budget.

Donald Moynihan, director of the LaFollette School, is one of those experts who has presented his work to lawmakers. Along with professor Nicholas Hillman, the pair have met with legislators and their staff regarding potentially distributing money to UW System schools based off of their performance on certain metrics.

Yet he acknowledged that the perception of the university as “liberal” was still a barrier to fostering dialogue between legislators and members of the university community.

“Over time there has become a perception that the university is a liberal institution and that doesn’t play in the context where the legislature and governorship are controlled by conservatives,” Moynihan said.

The value of peer-review research, Moynihan noted, is that it is rigorously reviewed and lacks an ideological bent, which is strikingly different than presentations from other policy or interest groups.

“If research is obviously biased, your work gets torn apart,” he said. “I’m not sure that legislators know that is true and that’s how we behave ourselves and carry ourselves.”

One lawmaker, state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said that he finds professional research valuable and noted that it stands out in a growing sea of information. He added, however, that for research to be most useful to lawmakers, it must come while policy is being formulated, not after a bill is introduced.

“The goal is to get information at the beginning of the process so you don’t have as much ownership over what you’re doing,” Olsen said, adding that if contradictory information comes in too late in the policymaking process lawmakers often “become in the business of discounting” that research.

Hannah Reuter, associate director of policy for the Scholars Strategy Network, said that the reason lawmakers often turn to academics because “we have a neutral place,” a comment which Moynihan echoed.

“We’re in a competition with other actors ... and we try to communicate the fact that we’re not trying to sell a product. We have no particular financial interest … and we are state employees, so we’re at their service,” he said.

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