Big ideas can be bad ideas – even in the age of the thinktank

Mark Mazower, who teaches history at Columbia University, in the Guardian: “First there was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. More recently, we had Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: for years, it seems, big ideas have been heading our way across the Atlantic. It is hard to think of many similarly catchy slogans that have gone the other way of late – Tony Giddens’ notion of “the third way” may be one.
Some people think that is a problem. They are worried that Britain has been failing to produce big ideas that policymakers can use. They want to convert academic ideas into policy relevance and shake up the bureaucrats. Phillip Blond, who recently wrote a controversial article in Chatham House’s magazine, is one of them. Francis Maude is another: he wants politicians to be able to appoint senior civil servants so that fresh thinking can enter Whitehall…
And are big ideas the kind of ideas worth having anyway? They age badly for one thing and quickly look shopworn. Moreover, it’s hard to think of many scholars whose best work has been directed explicitly towards such a goal. …The tendency in recent government policy here to demand demonstrable policy relevance or public “impact” from academics shows how far this mindset has spread. It may or may not produce some policy product. But what it will do is jeopardise British universities’ ability to do what they have done so well for so long: world-class research. These days both government and business demand value for money when they fund academia, and this makes it harder and more vital to insist that there are many ways to demonstrate the value of ideas, not just policy relevance.”