“Researchers have to manage politics, otherwise politics will manage them” - NVC
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“Researchers have to manage politics, otherwise politics will manage them”

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In which ways have public inquiry comissions in Sweden based their positions on research-based knowledge? To what extent have their conclusions been the basis for government bills and legislation? What knowledge is chosen or rejected? These are some of the questions in a comprehensive Swedish pending study that was presented at the Nordic Alcohol and Drug Researchers’ Assembly (NADRA) in Helsinki 31.8-2.9 2016.

Associate professor Johan Edman presenting at NADRA 2016


The study “Scientific state or state science? The knowledge-base of Swedish welfare research and welfare policy 1911-2015” started recently at Stockholm University. At NADRA one of the three sub-studies of the project was presented: the investigation of the knowledge production and knowledge dissemination within Swedish alcohol policy during the years 1911-2009.

- The aim is to study intersections and tension between the knowledge-base of policy and research within welfare politics, by the example of substance abuse policy. The project investigates the relation between policy and research historically and contextually, associate professor Johan Edman, from the Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs at Stockholm University, explains.

- The substance abuse policy and research has been an arena for public intervention, regulation and programs since the early 1900s and is a good example of Swedish welfare policy from the era of poor relief to de-regulation and market orientation, Edman says.

Play the political game

The study examines the six main commissions of inquiry on alcohol policy. According to Edman, public inquiries are the most important knowledge base for policy decisions in Sweden.

- The investigations’ character, composition of investigators, directives and ambition have changed during the years but the core task, to provide a basis for political decisions, remains the same.

According to Edman it´s reasonable to see public inquiries as a knowledge-policy nexus instrument.

- Knowledge in a broad sense, not science, is what is needed for political decision making. This includes research as well as knowledge about strong and organised interest, what´s politically possible and so forth.

Edman says that researchers should consider their role in relation to public inquiries with narrow political purposes in the same way that they like to keep the distance to other interest formations; supporting politically tendentious questions with research is a political act.

- It is not enough to do good research to play this game, you must also manage politics. Otherwise politics will manage you.

Historical perspective crucial

The project combines science-policy nexus research and the history of knowledge approach.  According to Edman the science-policy nexus research problematizes the close and complex relation between research results and policy choices. It draws attention to, for example, the increased emphasis on social relevance of research, a shift from “evidence-based policy” to “policy-based evidence” and policymakers’ tendency to select research that fits the bill and ignore the research that does not.

The science-policy nexus studies, however, tend to miss the long lines of development in assuming that modern day interlacing of expert knowledge, politics and bureaucracy is historically unique.

- Historical research shows century old links between decision-makers and experts in the structuring of the Swedish welfare state, says Edman who also argues that the historical approach is important since the influence that research has on society is subtle and slow working.

The first results of the study will be presented in 2017.

Associate professor Johan Edmans' presentation at NADRA 2016 (pdf, new window)

Nordic Alcohol and Drug Researchers' Assembly

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