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Applied administrative justice research: why we all need more of it

Applied administrative justice research: why we all need more of it

Joe Tomlinson

Administrative justice research has made significant progress in illuminating the nature of administrative decision-making, redress processes, and the interface between citizen and state. While the field is now diverse, both methodologically and in terms of the subjects of study, it consists almost exclusively of “basic” research. In this post, I make the case for a concentred effort to develop an explicitly “applied” branch of administrative justice research, which has as its central objective the diagnosis, analysis, and resolution of specific problems. Such a development, I argue, would have direct benefits but also indirectly benefit basic research in this field.

Most fields of research consist of both “basic” and “applied” research. Research fields are complex and multi-layered domains, but the essential difference captured in the basic/applied distinction pertains to the primary objective of the research enterprise. Basic research aims to expand knowledge, not to solve a particular problem. By contrast, the primary objective of applied research is the identification, analysis and resolution of specific problems. Though it can be traced back much further (see Stokes 1996), the contemporary origin of the basic/applied distinction is often traced to science and, in particular, the electrical engineer Vannevar Bush’s report Science, the Endless Frontier (1945). This influential report was constructed around the basic/applied distinction and ultimately forged US research policy for decades after. It also became more widely influential in the formation of disciplines and research institutions around the world.

While it remains prominent across research fields, the distinction between basic and applied research has also long being questioned on multiple fronts. Often, this is as part of wider debates about, for instance, the role of the modern university (e.g. Collini, 2012). However, scholarship in recent decades has also squarely confronted the distinction and proposed new ways for understanding how progress is made in research. Two such works are particularly worthy of note. The first is Donald Stokes’ Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation (1996). The central point of Pasteur’s Quadrant is that basic and applied research are not opposites but interconnected. To this end, Stokes proposes a two-dimensional classification, with one axis being “inspired by the quest for fundamental understanding” and the other being “inspired by considerations of use.”

The second is Narayanamurti and Odumosu’s Cycles of Invention and Discovery: Rethinking the Endless Frontier (2016). This book examines how knowledge breakthroughs actually happen, with a particular focus on science and engineering. The central claim is that the basic/applied distinctions is unhelpful to progress and has fostered a view as science as a “pure” ideal on the one hand and of engineering as a “practical”—and thus less prestigious— field on the other. Drawing upon Nobel Prize–winning examples of breakthrough research, such as magnetic resonance imaging, the transistor, and the laser, the authors show how distinctions between the search for knowledge and creative problem-solving are collapsed in the most fruitful research endeavours. As a result, they propose a new model of “cycles” of “discovery and invention” to better understand the nature of research advancement. While there is much value in these contributions and, at very least, they have shown that the basic/applied research distinction must be viewed with healthy caution, a core point remains: that research focused primarily on solving problems (i.e. applied research) is one element of a healthy overall field.

The field of administrative justice emerged and saw significant progress in the 20th Century, which has continued into the 21st Century. Early studies generally sought to understand the emergence of the welfare state, disrupting traditional frameworks that were losing touch with the reality of government. This has followed, in the latter parts of the 20th Century and into the new millennium, by the development of a rich line of research around various ‘models’ of administrative justice (e.g. Mashaw 2021). Now, the field is increasingly diverse in terms of methods, subjects, theoretical underpinnings, and disciplinary framings (Tomlinson, Hertogh, Kirkham and Thomas 2021). As with any framing, there are limitations involved in framing research through the prism of administrative justice (see e.g. Ison 1999). Nonetheless, it has proved a productive domain of research with a sufficiently cogent set of research interests at its core. While contemporary administrative justice research is diverse in many ways, it is also almost exclusively basic research. Basic research is essential and, by advancing the argument I am making in this post, I am in no way providing a critique of the value of basic research. Such research can and does have practical benefits too, but practical application is not generally the primary objective of administrative justice research. The effect of basic research on a real-world problem—if any—is either incidental or secondary.

The fact that the contemporary administrative justice research field is lacking an explicitly applied branch means the field is ultimately unbalanced. There is a strong case for actively developing applied administrative justice studies to advance the overall field further. That case is best understood in terms of the potential direct and indirect benefits.

In terms of direct benefits, there are serious problems in the administrative justice system that need sustained, critical, and constructive thought geared towards solutions, which researchers are well-placed to provide. There are long-running problems in systems, e.g. issues with the quality of decision-making (Thomas and Tomlinson 2017). There are also great challenges facing government and society, which also present new questions for administrative justice, e.g. the climate emergency and rapid advances in digital technological (Tomlinson 2019). More explicitly applied administrative justice research can help better analyse problems and propose solutions to them.

In terms of indirect benefits, the development of more applied administrative justice research will have beneficial effects on the basic research undertaken in this context. For instance, applied research brings new developments to the fore which can provoke new questions for basic question. It also generates new avenues for thinking about the foundations of the subject. Put simply, basic research is improved by a thriving applied branch.

Even if the case I am making here is accepted, the development of more explicitly applied administrative justice research presents various significant challenges. These include different questions of research ethics, the need for more extensive collaboration across disciplines, and even a reassessment for what is perceived by the research field to possess “scholarly value.” Familiar barriers will also need to be navigated, such as a general lack of high-quality administrative data and difficulties with research access (UKAJI, 2018). These challenges are significant and should not be underestimated, but they can, and should, be confronted. Some university-based research centres are already doing this in fields similar to administrative justice. One leading example is Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab, led by Professor Jim Greiner. Another is Stanford’s Legal Design Lab, led by Dr. Margaret Hagan. There is healthy debate about the particular techniques adopted by both of these centres (RCTs and design thinking), but their orientation to explicitly applied research is a testament to what is possible and its benefits. If that could be reflected in administrative justice research, the whole field—and all those with an interest in the administrative justice system—would be better for it.

Dr Joe Tomlinson is Senior Lecturer in Public Law in the University of York and Research Director of the Public Law Project.

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