The Role Of Research In The Age Of Trump

The general issue of whether research can influence policymakers is not new.
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By Jeffrey Prottas

We all have values and an image in our mind of the way the world should be. These are our roadmap for seeking to improve society, which is of great importance to the Heller School. But it is not enough. Our students must know how the policy world works and how public actions actually affect us. We try to teach them that there is a major difference between arguing for what should happen and being able to predict what will happen if you take certain steps. That’s a research undertaking.

As researchers, our impact on policy is directly affected by how strongly people feel about things and if they believe that information should change actions. It’s very hard for someone like President Trump to listen to an argument of, “You want this, but you’re not going to get it by these actions” in areas in which he’s utterly committed. No amount of facts or analysis is going to alter what he believes.

Research makes possible the connection between aspirations and actual outcomes. President Trump doesn’t do that. He wants a wall to keep Mexicans out. We do not agree with him about keeping Mexicans out, but let’s face it—he doesn’t care what we think. What we could say to him is, “You want to keep Mexicans out? This wall is not going to do it.” Or, “This wall is going to keep out one Mexican for every million dollars spent. Therefore, it’s in your economic interest to find another way to do it.”

“Research makes possible the connection between aspirations and actual outcomes. President Trump doesn’t do that.”

The general issue of whether research can influence policymakers is not new. It’s just become much more extreme under President Trump. He thinks if you say something, that makes it true, and that if you do what you say, it will have the effect that you want. As a PhD program, we’re preparing people who will work in that critical area that lies between what you want to do and what you end up having.

Previously, lawmakers didn’t necessarily listen to research, but they did not say the facts don’t matter. President Trump, however, is basically saying that facts have no bearing, and what’s really important is what he thinks. He has created a public, conceptual challenge that suggests there is no reason to do research because it’s what you believe that matters, not what you can show. That’s a symbolic escalation that is very threatening not only to us as a graduate school, but also to education in general. If facts are irrelevant, why spend years learning how to ascertain and analyze them? What, in this case, is the point of any education?

We have to accept the painful reality that Trump is not going to change. He is 70-years-old and this is who he is. We can suggest that he really ought to be open to information about what’s real, because that will allow him to achieve whatever goals he has, but the problem is that his goal is to be loved.

But, there are a lot of places in the world where more concrete decisions have to be made. Let’s take the wall. It would be useful to know whether it needs to be 17 feet high with snakes on the top, or if three feet is fine. That would help President Trump build an effective wall, or the research might lead him to conclude that the wall isn’t the best method to keep people out of the U.S.

That’s what we, as a PhD program, can do. As people, we have real political preferences about what should happen— the social justice mission of Heller celebrates this—but we teach students that their political preferences are one thing and their capacity to make an empirical argument that will create change is another.

Research matters if you want to achieve a goal, whether it’s to decrease drug use, increase immigration or build a wall. Pronouncements will only take you so far. Analysis, based on a true understanding of the world, is what turns plain talk into concrete reality.

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