Thoughts on Historians and Public Policy in the UK and Canada

22 07 2013

AS: Jim Clifford, one of the founders of the website, posted a lengthy reply to my recent post about Ian Mosby and the place of historians in the public sphere. I’m posting my reply here. 

Hi Jim, is a great initiative. I didn’t realise it was inspired by History and Policy. You are right that’s quite different from H&P, which has several FTE employees. That’s not to say it doesn’t make a valuable contribution. I enjoy reading it.

You wrote that “I’m still interested in reviving the public policy goals of at some point in the future, but I think the History and Policy might take more funding that our site current operates on. History and Policy have staff members that can work to link historians with public policy makers and the media. There are a number of think tanks around Canada that might help us bridge our research with current policy issues, but we’d also need a critical mass of historians interested in this kind of work. Maybe Ian Mosby’s success, along with Sean Kheraj’s work on pipeline oil spills, will inspire others to think about how their research connects with current policy issues.”

You are right that this would take serious money. In translating History and Policy to the Canadian context, you would need to keep several things in mind.  Bilingualism is obviously one  important difference between Canada and the UK.  Federalism is another. History and Policy publishes on a vast range of topics, ranging from maternity care to water conservation to foreign policy. That’s because the UK is a unitary state and the MPs and journalists who have to think about local government one day have to think about Afghanistan the next. In Canada, we have two political classes, one federal, one provincial, that are interested in different sets of issues.

My suggestion is that you need to decide which level of government you are trying to serve or influence. Don’t try to publish papers on topics that are related to both federal (e.g., defence) and provincial jurisdiction (e.g., K-12 education), since people in provincial government won’t be interested in the defence stuff and people in Ottawa won’t care about daycare (Obviously there are some areas, such as agriculture, where jurisdictions overlap).

I would recommend focusing first on federal areas of jurisdiction, as there is likely to be more money for a website that is useful to federal policymakers. Of course, focusing on federal policy areas means that you have to have a symmetrically bilingual website, which will drive up your costs.

In starting out, you should assemble a board of directors that includes some really senior academics whose research interests mirror the main priority areas of the federal government.

One way of determining what these priority areas are is to do a word count of recent Throne Speeches.  Canadian Throne Speeches used to be about social policy, healthcare etc. Nowadays, they focus more on the nightwatchman functions of the state. See here. You might also look at a breakdown of what the federal government actually spends money on.

Another difference between Canada and the UK is that the UK is totally dominated by its capital, which the largest city, the base of all of the newspapers and TV stations, and the home of the stock exchange, etc. Many of the leaders in one field know each other.  In Canada, these functions are dispersed among several cities, which makes influencing policy a bit more difficult.   History and Policy is based smack in the centre of London and a short bus ride from “the Westminster Village.”

Moreover, the UK is still largely governed by a fraternity of graduates from just two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) where people form lifelong friendships and alliances.  That means there are lots of pre-existing linkages between academe, the civil service, the political class, the press, and so forth we [thankfully] don’t have in Canada, where leaders in these fields come a wider number of universities.  Canada’s more democratic social structure would make it harder for an organization  like History and Policy to influence policy there. You can have a look at short bios of all of the History and Policy staffers here.

Above all, ensure there is ideological and partisan balance in your board of directors. That way your budget will be stable regardless of which political party is in office. I also suggest that you have a mixture of academic historians and non-academics who are sympathetic to the application of history to public policy. The latter might include Hugh Segal, a Tory Senator, Sean Conway (an Ontario Liberal), Bill Graham (federal Liberal), and Chris Champion (Conservative, former Reformer). You should also ensure that the academic historians include a mixture of Canadianists and non-Canadianists.

If you want to contact me by email I can give some more specific advice and tell you a bit more about my abortive project.

Your wrote: “One more note, Histoire sociale/Social History has only committed to keeping Ian’s article open for 2 weeks from the date it was opened up. I sympathize with the serious fiscal constrains of academic publishing in Canada, but I really hope they decide to leave this article open permanently.”

Two whole weeks? Wow… /sarc.

Ian Mosby, Public Debate, and the Question of Open Source Academic Publishing

20 07 2013

In the last few days, the Canadian media has been filled with stories about a policy of deliberately starving children in Native residential schools in the 1940s and 1950s. See here, here, and here. [For the benefit of the non-Canadians who now form the majority of people who read this blog, I should explain that the residential schools were boarding schools which Indian children were forced to attend as part of an assimilation policy. Conditions at these underfunded schools were dismal and the Canadian government recently issued a formal apology. There were similar schools in the United States and the other settler societies and similar stories of abuse].

The media coverage of this issue was sparked by an article that appeared in the latest issue of a Canadian academic historical journal, Ian Mosby “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,“  Histoire sociale/Social History.

The media coverage has raised the issue of malnutrition in present day Native communities, which is a real issue in places that are distant from the road network.

I’m glad to see that academic historical research is getting some attention in the media and is informing debate about public policy.  That’s great. Ian Mosby is to be congratulated for advancing the public debate in this way, especially since he is an early career researcher. Historians should publish more research that speaks to issues of public concern—I suppose that’s one way of giving back to the taxpayers who fund our research.

The subject of Mosby’s research lies well outside my area of expertise, so I can’t really comment on the validity of his conclusions or methodology beyond noting that his paper was published in a peer reviewed journal.  Mosby’s research, however, raises the question of paywalls and academic publishing. Those who follow this blog will know that I have strong views on the UK government’s plans to shift academic publishing in this country to an open access model known as Finch Gold. (For previous posts, see here and here). Under this model, anyone on the internet could read articles in academic journals for free and the costs of publishing the journals would be defrayed by the authors or their employers. As I’ve said before, this particular way of funding Open Access publishing is a terrible idea. However, the basic principle of Open Access is an important one. In a democracy, taxpayers ought to be able to see and use the research they have funded. Transparency and visibility are especially important in the case of academic research that has a bearing on public policy.

Here’s the problem. The journal in which Mosby publishes his research puts its papers behind a paywall, which means that to read them you either need a university library card. If you Google the title of a typical academic article, you will find a stub on a journal website, a short abstract, and then a login that looks like this:

Project MUSE - Class, Capitalism, and Construction- Winnipeg's Housing Crisis and the Debate over Public Housing, 1934-1939

What this means is that members of the public interested in Mosby’s research must rely on either the short summary that appeared in newspaper articles or the somewhat longer abstract on the journal’s website. That’s really unfortunate—we wouldn’t expect people to show up a book club and discuss a novel having only read the first 100 words on Google Books. Moreover, for academics who work in systems in which we are judged on both the quantity and quality of the research we produce and its Impact Factor (e.g., citation stats, references in the media) Closed Access publishing has consequences for compensation and promotion.


I don’t pretend to know that the best model for academic publishing would be. It costs money to run journals. Right now, consumers of knowledge pay many of these costs, which discourages the dissemination of research to the general public. Maybe there could be something similar to the BBC licence fee, although that would be unfair to citizens who aren’t interested in reading academic journal articles (the vast majority of taxpayers).  The Finch Gold Open Access model will impose major costs on universities and/or academics. Moreover, any solution to this conundrum needs to be international, given the nature of academic publishing.  

What I do know is that the current model keeps citizens from having access to academic knowledge. That’s a bad thing, especially in a country like  Canada where the linkages between historians and the public policy community are quite limited. The US has a biennial policy history conference and a quarterly journal called Policy History.  Here in the UK, there is an admirable organisation called History and Policy, which aims to connect historians with expertise in particular topics to policymakers and the general public. To see examples of what this clearinghouse for ideas does, see here and here.  A historian who has published on an area that is relevant to some sort of pressing policy question (e.g., counter-insurgency and the Afghanistan exit strategy) will be commissioned by History and Policy to write a short summary of his or her research with lessons for today. The piece, which is placed online, contains a bibliography for those who want to know more. 

A few years ago, I kicked around the idea of setting up a Canadian version of History and Policy. I spoke to a historian who now works in policy studies institute to see whether we could get it off the ground. Unfortunately, nothing really came of this initiative for a variety of reasons, most of which were my fault. Anyway, perhaps making more academic historical research in Canada Open Access will serve as a sort of second-best substitute for the intellectual clearinghouse I proposed back in 2008: if articles show up in a Google Search and can be read easily, readers will be able to draw their own policy conclusions.  The key thing will be to find the funds to make journal Open Access. 


Update: I see that the publishers of Mosby’s article have now decided to make the paper available online, free to everyone, for a limited period. See here,

Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,

I suspect that this astute move is designed to raise the profile of the journal: make a particularly sensational article free and more people will become familiar with your website. However, this decision to make one particular article free to everyone doesn’t address the more fundamental problem with the pay to read model of academic publishing.  


Should Historians Comment on Current Affairs?

19 08 2011

Historian David Starkey, who is an expert on the Tudor period, recently went on TV and made some comments about the recent riots in English cities that were condemned by others as racist. His comments prompted calls for historians to stick to what they know and not get involved in current affairs.

Pat Thane, who is a social historian and one of the directors of the History & Policy group  at King’s College London recently published a robust defence of the engagement of historians with questions of present-day public policy.

As Thane notes, the History & Policy website

was established to mobilise historians with appropriate expertise to engage with and comment on current policy issues.

With a network of over 300 historians, we specifically try to put journalists and policymakers in touch with the right historian, to address the right issue, with the right knowledge at the right time. Hopefully, some of the policy areas under review following the riots will benefit from historical input and maybe even avoid falling prey to inaccurate historical assumptions and reinventing the policy wheel.


Historian Kate Bradley on the Riots in English Cities

16 08 2011

Kate Bradley is a lecturer in Social History and Social Policy at the University of Kent. Her latest book is Poverty, Philanthropy and the State: Charities and the Working Classes in London, 1918-1979, published by Manchester University Press.

Today, the History & Policy website posted her opinion piece on the recent riots. It shows that these riots were far from unprecedented.

The 1958 Notting Hill riots erupted out of tension from white youths towards the black community, whilst similar disturbances occurred in Nottingham around the same time. Likewise, the riots of the 1980s exploded out of deep tension on the streets between police and young people from ethnic minorities. All emerged from similar strains and distrusts experienced daily, but were triggered by a local ‘spark’ event. In Notting Hill, a group of white teens set about avenging themselves after losing an argument; in Brixton in 1981, people believed the police were failing to help a young man who had been stabbed; in Tottenham in 1986, because Cynthia Jarrett collapsed and died during a police raid on her home. A locality is geographically unique, but its social shape can be replicated many times over.

P.S. History & Policy is a unique collaboration between the History Faculty of the University of Cambridge, the Centre for History in Public Health (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) and the Centre for Contemporary British History. Its offices are at King’s College London. 

Since 2006, the H&P website has sought to connect historians doing policy-relevant research to the media and decision-makers in government. Basically, posts on their website boil down the key research findings of historians into short pieces suitable for busy journalists, civil servants, and politicians.

When I was based at a Canadian university I tried to organize a similar website for Canada. Alas, the idea never really got off the ground.  Of course, the problem with ahistorical policymaking isn’t confined to Canada. The mission statement of H&P reads:

We believe that:

  • Too often policy reflects unexamined historical assumptions and clichés
  • History is incorrectly assumed to be less relevant to current policy than the social and natural sciences
  • At best, policy without history fails to learn past lessons and, at worst, repeats past mistakes
  • Given the opportunity, historians can shed light on the causes of current problems and even suggest innovative solutions
  • Historians often have important contributions to make, but need to acquire new information and skills to engage with policymakers
  • There is a reluctance among many policymakers to ‘let historians in’, which needs to be addressed

30 09 2009

I thought that I would repost this:

“The ( committee is
pleased to announce that we are actively soliciting papers in all
areas of historical inquiry, including but not limited to several
specific targeted areas. We are looking for short papers on important
historical topics that might be of interest to policy makers, the
media or the general public. Papers (approximately 2,000 – 4,000 words
in length) should engage critical issues facing Canadian society, and
must be written for a general audience.

We are soliciting papers on a wide array of themes, including but not
limited to:

* Aboriginal life, communities and treaty issues
* Climate change and the environment
* Economy, development, taxation and finance
* Education
* Gender and sexuality
* International affairs and security
* Medicine, health care and public health
* Trade unions and employment

Editorial guidelines can be found at

Papers should be submitted is a new website to help connect historians with the
public, policy makers and the media.If you have any questions, please contact us at   We look forward to hearing from you.”

Historian Peter Cain on European Attitudes to China

18 09 2009

Historian Peter J. Cain has an excellent new paper on the History and Policy website.  The paper is called “China, globalisation and the west: A British debate, 1890 – 1914”.

Other papers on economic-historical themes at History and Policy include:  “The ‘credit crunch’ and the importance of trust” by Geoffrey Hosking; “Equality and incentive: fiscal politics from Gladstone to Brown” by Martin Daunton; and “The real lesson for developing countries from the history of the developed world: ‘freedom to choose'” by Ha-Joon Chang. (I like how Chang’s paper title makes an allusion to this man).

The website, by the way, is designed to bring relevant historical research to the attention of policy-makers. John Tosh outlines the mission of the History and Policy here. The History and Policy website has inspired a group of Canadian scholars to establish a similar project called ActiveHistory. The Canadian project is evidently in its early stages but looks very promising.

5 06 2009

I would like to promote a new Canadian history resource,

From their website:

“ is a new website to help connect historians with the public, policy makers and the media.  This is a part of an effort to facilitate and disseminate the ideas developed at the  conference “Active History: History for the Future” at Glendon College in September 2008.  The website project is currently being led by a group of PhD Students in the History Department at York University, but we hope to expand the steering committee and editorial support board over the next few months.

We are looking at the British History & Policy Website as a model for this project.

We are looking for historians to join our database and submit papers.

We are also seeking editorial board members.  Please contact us if you might be interested in taking a more active role with this project:”