Subway riders in London are constantly warned to “mind the gap,” the dangerous empty space between the platform and the train. Unwary riders who fail to heed this advice may suffer a variety of unpleasant consequences, ranging from scuffed shoes to broken ankles.
In this essay, I warn readers to mind a different and vastly wider gap: the one between researchers and policy makers. Researchers often bemoan the fact that policy makers fail to take research findings into sufficient account when making policy choices (Weiss, 1977). For their part, policy makers complain that research fails to provide answers to the questions they are obliged to address. There is agreement on both sides that the current state of affairs is unsatisfactory, and there are frequent calls for change, but the gap between scholars and policy makers remains wide and apparently unbridgeable.
Why should this be the case? I argue that the gap between researchers and policy makers finds its origins not only in mutual obstinacy or misunderstanding (though these are common enough) but also in a set of dilemmas that are intrinsic to the field of policy research. These dilemmas originate in fundamental differences between the orientations and interests of the two groups. These differences almost inevitably produce disagreements about which questions merit study and which answers merit attention.