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The collision of research and real life

By Alex Penk September 11, 2018

I’ve never been to Maraenui, but I’ve now had a pretty eye-opening introduction to the Napier suburb. The devastation caused by synthetic cannabis in that community has recently been documented by Radio NZ in grim detail. It’s a disturbing story, and at the same time a compelling reminder of the importance of good research and policy development.

How so? Leaders in government make decisions that affect thousands, even millions of people; shaping who we are as a nation and who we’ll be in the future. That’s not an easy task. These leaders have to operate in a cluttered public square, full of the ‘reckons’ of talking heads and the reflexive blare of social media. It’s important to have a competition of ideas, but it’s growing harder to separate the signal from the noise.

Politicians confront a whole range of opinions about what’s right and wrong, about values, and about what’s practical

They also have to deal with the pressures of a short electoral cycle, and the reality that they have to win elections in order to make change, so may have to follow public opinion even when there are good reasons to question it. They can never please everyone, and they can never respond to every problem, because their resources are finite. Politicians confront a whole range of opinions about what’s right and wrong, about values, and about what’s practical.

Despite the challenges, leaders in government can make decisions in everyone’s best interests, and high-quality research can help them by bringing the best possible evidence into focus. Let’s go back to Maraenui to see how.

One resident there told Radio NZ, “We need more employment. A lot of people here, if they had jobs they wouldn’t be so hooked on synthetics.” This is a reminder that while research, especially economic research can seem dry and disconnected from reality, social and economic issues often go hand-in-hand. In order to make sure there are jobs available to people in New Zealand’s regions, policymakers need to know what’s most likely to create opportunity. This is why we produced Taking the Right Risks, a research report that reviewed over 200 international studies on regional development, with some clear lessons about what works.

“This cycle’s not going to break if nobody steps to the table.”

Of course, no-one has all the answers by themselves, which is why we spend a lot of time listening to others and engaging in dialogue as a core part of our research process. It’s equally obvious that economic development, and research more generally, are only one part of the puzzle. Policy wonks and law-makers have a role to play in helping Maraenui, but so do whānau, drug counsellors, job coaches, community workers, and many others.

One of those community workers told Radio NZ, “I know what it’s like being brought up in a hard environment. I was brought up with gangs … and got it hard. The same shit is happening, but it’s 2018. This cycle’s not going to break if nobody steps to the table.” A lot of people will need to step up to this challenge, including the Government. As odd as it might sound, rigorous research and careful policy analysis can help them do just that.

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