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A recent paper (of which one of us, Carlo Ratti, is a co-author) uses anonymized data from telecommunications networks across Europe to explore how human networks change with city size. The results are striking: in large cities, people not only walk faster (a tendency recorded since the 1960s), but they also make—and change—friends faster. This phenomenon is likely rooted in the fact that, in accordance with West’s findings, the total number of human connections increases with city size. London’s eight million inhabitants regularly connect with almost twice the number of people as Cambridge’s 100,000 residents. This increasing exposure to people—and hence to ideas, activities, and even diseases—could explain the impact of city size on socioeconomic outcomes. But another tendency is also consistent across cities of all sizes: people tend to build “villages” around themselves. This behavior is quantified as the networks’ “clustering coefficient"—that is, the probability that a person’s friends will also be friends with one another—and remains extraordinarily stable across metropolitan areas. Simply put, humans everywhere are naturally inclined to live within tight-knit communities.

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Foreign Policy, a magazine, now runs “Democracy Lab”, a website paid for by the Legatum Institute, a think-tank based in London. It has a modest budget for freelancers. In June the Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank co-founded by Margaret Thatcher, launched “CapX”, which publishes daily news and comment on its website and by e-mail. The Centre for European Reform, a think-tank founded by Charles Grant (formerly of The Economist), publishes pieces with gripping headlines such as: “Twelve things everyone should know about the European Court of Justice”.

Three aspects of scholarship appear to be most important: First, policymakers appear to want mid-range theory. Policymakers do not reject methodologically sophisticated scholarship across the board but do seem to find much of it not useful. They prefer that scholars generate simple and straightforward frameworks that help them make sense of a complex world. They seem not so much to be looking for direct policy advice as for background knowledge to help them put particular events within a more general context. We interpret policymakers’ preference for theories over facts to the fact that like most busy people, they are cognitive economizers who need ways to make good decisions quickly and under great uncertainty. Along these lines, Henry Kissinger reportedly demanded of his subordinates: “Don’t tell me facts, tell me what they mean.” Second, brevity is key for policymakers. We suspect that the reason that Op/Eds are so influential among policymakers is only partly due to where they are published; another important aspect of their influence is their short length. We are by no means suggesting that scholars only write in that format, but we strongly believe that research findings that cannot be presented in that format are unlikely to shape policy. Therefore, our recommended model is one in which a scholar publishes his or her findings in traditional scholar outlets such as books or journals but also writes shorter and more accessible pieces reporting the same findings and telegraphing their policy implications in policy journals, opinion pieces, or even on blogs. Finally, a related issue is accessibility: Policymakers find much current scholarly work – from across the methodological spectrum – inaccessible. Policymakers don’t want scholars to write in Greek or French, but rather just plain English.’

We suspect that the reason that Op/Eds are so influential among policymakers is only partly due to where they are published; another important aspect of their influence is their short length. We are by no means suggesting that scholars only write in that format, but we strongly believe that research findings that cannot be presented in that format are unlikely to shape policy. Therefore, our recommended model is one in which a scholar publishes his or her findings in traditional scholar outlets such as books or journals but also writes shorter and more accessible pieces reporting the same findings and telegraphing their policy implications in policy journals, opinion pieces, or even on blogs.

‘Evidence-based policy’ has become a mantra of many governments that may determine, justify, illuminate or act as smoke screen for projected changes to a specific policy. In economic terms this means that net benefits should be calculated by estimating the expected future returns from a potential change discounted into the present value and compared with estimated costs to those affected: this is sometimes called ‘impact analysis’. Its ‘shadow’ side is ‘policy-based evidence’, whereby selective facts are offered in support of a predetermined government position. Actual practice probably veers between the two. The increased focus on evidence has been a boon to economic consultancies and to lobbyists. But to many the meaning of ‘evidence’ remains unclear. Put bluntly: Is it just a rhetorical device? (it’s ‘evidence’ if you like it, ‘lobbying’ if you don’t); Or is ‘evidence’ a useful social science concept for understanding human behaviour, and evaluating different normative paths?