Pal’s Comparison of Academic and Policy Research

… a core concept used in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below) explains how the differences between academic and policy research affect policy communication.

Pal writes (p. 369-370):

“As a specific form of communication, policy communication makes certain demands on those who produce it, largely in terms of those who will consume it – decisionmakers and the public. … [P]olicy analysis draws on the social and natural sciences – academic research – for data and research and, in many cases, applies the tools of the social sciences for original  research on a policy problem and recommendations. But while there is an overlap between the two types of research, they are still distinct enterprises in at least six key ways, outlined in Table 9.1.

“These distinctions are not hard and fast, and there are always exceptions … but it helps, as a general rule, to distinguish the genres. There is a world of difference, for example, between the lengthy analysis of current science undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and work that is intentionally directed to make a sharp and clear contribution to policy debates over climate change. The latter would include something like the research paper Climate Leadership, Economic Prosperity (Bramley, Sadik, & Marshall, 2009). That paper was produced by two think tanks (the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation) with a clear agenda on environmental issues. The report was all of 16 pages long, but it dealt with a fiendishly difficult policy issue: what federal and provincial policies would be required to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25 percent below what they had been in 1990 by 2020, what would the overall cost be, and what would the distributional consequences across the country be?

“To provide an answer, the report drew on sophisticated modelling techniques, but those models were not presented in the paper (a full technical report was available separately). The core recommendation was a carbon tax, starting at $50/tonne and rising to $200/tonne by 2020. The revenues raised through this carbon tax would be used, in part, to compensate (through reductions in personal income tax) for higher energy costs, particularly for Alberta, which would see a net economic contraction due to reductions in the oil and gas industries. In a short table that spanned two pages, the report provided a list of the different policies modelled in the analysis as well as their rationales (e.g., carbon price, vehicle emissions standards, building codes, and appliance efficiency standards). Moreover, the report modelled the effects of its preferred levels of GHG reductions, as well as the government at the time (its targets were lower). This paper drew on science, but was packaged in such a way as to be accessible to media, decisionmakers, and the public. So, newspapers across the country reported on it, and it drew mostly criticism from the federal government and the western provinces.”

“Too stark a distinction between these two styles or approaches is inadvisable. There are many examples of longer, more complex, academically oriented work that have “crossed the divide” and made significant contributions to policy debate. Two early ones were Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962), which trained national attention in the United States on poverty, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which virtually launched the environmental movement. More recent ones would include Robert Putnam’s work on social capital, which introduced the term and the concept to broader policy discussions in economic development and social protection (Putnam, 2000; Putnam, Leonardi, et al., 1993), and David Foot’s work on the policy implications of an aging population (Foot & Stoffman, 1998). An excellent example closer to home is the 2011 release of a study of Ontario’s postsecondary system (Clark, Van Loon, et al. 2011). Its title signals a work that is clearly intended to address a specific policy problem, that of the quality of undergraduate education in Ontario: Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-Effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Consulting and Communicating on Policy (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

Bramley, M., Sadik, P., & Marshall, D. (2009). Climate leadership, economic prosperity: Final report on an economic study of greenhouse gas targets and policies for Canada. Calgary and Vancouver: Pembina Institute and David Suzuki Foundation.

Carson, R. (1962). Silent spring. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Clark, I. D., Trick, D., & Van Loon, R. J. (2011). Academic reform: Policy options for improving the quality and cost-effectiveness of undergraduate education in Ontario. Montréal and Kingston: School of Policy Studies, McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Foot, D., & Stoffman, D. (1998). Boom, bust & echo 2000: Profiting from the demographic shift in the new millennium. Toronto, ON: Macfarlane Walter & Ross.

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Putnam, R. D., Leonardi, R., et al. (1993). Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 8 April 2017.

Image:, Communication Policy, at, accessed 8 April 2017.