I saw this guest post on the Slow Boring substack, by a former senior US government official, and figured it might be of interest here. The post's original title is "The economic research policymakers actually need", but it seemed to me like the post could be applied just as well to other fields.

Excerpts (totaling ~750 words vs. the original's ~1500):

I was a senior administration official, here’s what was helpful

[Most] academic research isn’t helpful for programmatic policymaking — and isn’t designed to be. I can, of course, only speak to the policy areas I worked on at Commerce, but I believe many policymakers would benefit enormously from research that addressed today’s most pressing policy problems.

... most academic papers presume familiarity with the relevant academic literature, making it difficult for anyone outside of academia to make the best possible use of them.

The most useful research often came instead from regional Federal Reserve banks, non-partisan think-tanks, the corporate sector, and from academics who had the support, freedom, or job security to prioritize policy relevance. It generally fell into three categories:

  1. New measures of the economy
  2. Broad literature reviews
  3. Analyses that directly quantify or simulate policy decisions.

If you’re an economic researcher and you want to do work that is actually helpful for policymakers — and increases economists’ influence in government — aim for one of those three buckets.

New data and measures of the economy

The pandemic and its aftermath brought an urgent need for data at higher frequency, with greater geographic and sectoral detail, and about ways the economy suddenly changed. Some of the most useful research contributions during that period were new data and measures of the economy: they were valuable as ingredients rather than as recipes or finished meals...

These data and measures were especially useful because the authors made underlying numbers available for download. And most of them continue to be updated monthly, which means unlike analyses that are read once and then go stale, they remain fresh and can be incorporated into real-time analyses.

Broad overviews and literature reviews

Most academic journal articles introduce a new insight and assume familiarity with related academic work. But as a policymaker, I typically found it more useful to rely on overviews and reviews that summarized, organized, and framed a large academic literature. Given the breadth of Commerce’s responsibilities, we had to be on top of too many different economic and policy topics to be able to read and digest dozens of academic articles on every topic...

Comprehensive, methodical overviews like these are often published by think-tanks whose primary audience is policymakers. There are also two academic journals — the Journal of Economic Perspectives and the Journal of Economic Literature — that are broad and approachable enough to be the first (or even only) stop for policymakers needing the lay of the research land.

Analysis that directly quantify or simulate policy decisions

With the Administration’s focus on industrial policy and place-based economic development — and Commerce’s central role — I found research that quantified policy effects or simulated policy decisions in these areas especially useful...

Another example is the work of Tim Bartik, a labor economist and expert on local economic development. In a short essay, he summarized a large academic literature and estimated how effective different local economic development policies are in terms of the cost per job created. Cleaning up contaminated sites for redevelopment creates jobs at a much lower cost per job than job training, which in turn is much more cost-effective than giving businesses tax breaks or grants to create jobs. By comparing different policy options using the same metric, this analysis followed the form that policy implementation often takes: deciding which policies or approaches will be most effective to achieve a stated goal within a set budget, with Congress having stated a goal and setting a budget, tasking departments like Commerce to work out the policy and implementation details.

How else can researchers help policymakers?

In addition to these three kinds of analyses, researchers who want to help policymakers can directly participate in policy and technical debates. How? One way is to respond to Federal Register Notices. Government agencies ask for comments on all kinds of technical issues — such as statistical policy changes that researchers care a lot about. Agencies really do pay attention to comments submitted in response to FRNs; such comments end up being more effective than, say, social media outrage.

Another way is to get on advisory committees. For example, the statistical agencies have multiple advisory bodies that weigh in and give feedback on technical issues and user needs. Calls for nominations happen frequently, and you can find them in the Federal Register Notices. And finally, come take a tour in government. Many of the economists I worked with in the Administration were on leave from an academic position, learning how policymaking actually works and bringing that knowledge back to make their future research more useful.

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