Imagining a better 2014 (5) – by Julia Pomares

Better 2014 P&I 2

[Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of posts called ‘Imagining a better 2014’ that brings together reflections from a number of researchers and practitioners on the most important lessons and future challenges for promoting the use of research in policy.

Our fifth respondent is Julia Pomares, Director of the Program on Political Institutions at CIPPEC, the largest think tank in Argentina. Before joining CIPPEC, Julia held several management posts in the field of election administration in Argentina (Ministry of the Interior and Government of the City of Buenos Aires) and the United Kingdom (former-Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) and worked as international consultant in democratization-related issues in several Latin American countries.]

Julia Pomares small

1. What are the most important lessons about research and policy that you could draw from 2013 to use in 2014?

In a year marked by the scandal of economists Rogoff and Reinhart on the flaws of their data, which was used to support austerity measures in several countries, the public debate on the role of ideas in politics focused mainly on the (ir)responsibility of researchers in providing evidence to inform specific policy decisions. The debate about the most instrumental use of knowledge shadowed other uses, especially one which is crucial in the era of the Internet: that of the percolation effect of the ideas, coined by Carol Weiss more than thirty years ago. Her persuasive argument about ideas percolating the public agenda in a very subtle and indirect way is the key to the main lesson I drew from working in the research-politics interface in 2013.

At a time when academic studies are becoming increasingly accessible, it seems to me that our main challenge is finding innovative ways to percolate ideas. It is a more chaotic and non-linear link between knowledge and politics what we need to pursue. This year we disseminated the results of an applied-research project on incumbency advantages in Argentine provinces. It was a very ambitious project, compiling data on the last thirty years of elections for all 24 provinces, in collaboration with a colleague writing his doctoral thesis at Yale University. We found that incumbent governors enjoy an increasingly strong advantage over other competitors and that in several provinces takeover is virtually an impossible mission (Watch our video – you can activate English subtitles). Our communications team suggested a creative title for the research report “El efecto cancha inclinada” (‘The uneven playing field effect’). In a society so receptive to football metaphors, the phrase was the key to disseminating the results among the wide audience. Journalists, deputies and researchers alike mentioned the problem of the uneven playing field in legislative sessions and the media, even without mentioning our study nor CIPPEC. But in several circles, a hot debate about the waning of electoral competitiveness took place. It made me realize that metaphors, visualizations and other non-academic techniques are key to percolating ideas.

2. What is the most important challenge for you in terms of promoting the use of research in policy in 2014?

Engaging with graphic designers, art directors, writers and others in order to find innovative ways to disseminate high-quality research to a wide audience. I am looking forward to create collaborative and multidisciplinary efforts to deal with a very complex topic: election forensic tools. These statistical techniques are very powerful for detecting and preventing election irregularities but are very complicated to understand and communicate to stakeholders. We are now conducting a systematic analysis of the quality of election results in Argentina but we know that the hardest work will come when trying to disseminate our findings and recommendations.

3. What could we do more collectively?

Working at a think tank on applied-research projects that have to be completed in very short time-frames (and raising two small kids) leaves me with almost no time to engage with colleagues in other latitudes except for a few academic conferences abroad every year. One of the missions of CIPPEC is promoting a more fair electoral competition in Argentina and we devote most of our time to research and to dialogue with legislators, journalists and public officials. But in order to do our work better, we must dialogue with colleagues doing the same elsewhere. We have some partners in Latin America but almost no partners in other regions. What are the best ways to build networks with think tanks and researchers working on similar topics? How can we secure sustainable ways to exchange with others beyond email exchanges from time to time? I will be so glad to work more collectively!