This paper discusses the relationship between applied policy research commissioned by the state and the development and maintenance of critical human geographies. In contrast with recent debates, which have centred on the relative status of human geography within policy circles, we focus on the often mundane and messy realities of undertaking policy research. The paper argues that applied policy research offers considerable potential for human geographers to pursue substantive and normative concerns, but can also place geographers in complex and demanding situations that present practical and ethical challenges. In such contexts, being ‘relevant’ in the manner demanded by policy actors while maintaining critical integrity necessitates a high degree of reflexivity, strategic calculation and tradeoffs between principles and pragmatism. The paper draws on our experience of undertaking contract research on parish and town councils for the UK government. We emphasize the opportunities and pitfalls represented by the internal differentiation of the state, the importance of active negotiation and compromise with clients and stakeholders, the mediating role played by the ‘evidence base’, the politics of expertise and the use of applied policy research as a platform for wider policy engagement. The paper concludes by calling for greater reflection on the realities of applied policy research.
Published: January 2011