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Why areas of research interest should matter to researchers

One of the lesser-known suggestions of Paul Nurse’s influential 2014 review of research councils was that “research should be at the heart of government, with an effective dialogue between researchers, politicians and the public, so that policies and strategies are in place to bring about research that benefits society”.

It may seem strange that such a thing as “effective dialogue” did not already exist, but there you go. In any case, Nurse’s recommendations led to the creation of departmental areas of research interest, or ARIs. 

ARIs are like a cheat-sheet for engaging with policymakers. Most government departments and some non-ministerial agencies—including the Health and Safety Executive, the National Archives and the Financial Services Authority—now publish ARIs every two or three years. How they are developed will be particular to each, but the broader processes will be similar. 

The Ministry of Justice, for example, published its latest ARI in December 2020. The part of the ministry responsible for them is a team within its Data and Analytical Services Directorate, a body of some 400 or more professional analysts who turn the methodological wheels and understand where there are gaps in their knowledge. The team itself is the Evidence and Partnership Hub, and its role is to collaborate and partner with academics, researchers, networks and funders. They produce the ARIs, they host events, seminars and workshops, they facilitate secondments and, with any luck, help unlock funding. 

What do ARIs look like?

The Ministry of Justice’s 2020 ARIs build on those it initially published in 2018. Some remain similar to the originals, reflecting long-standing and complex evidence needs; others are new or have heightened significance against the current social and political context. 

The ARIs summarise the ministry’s evidence needs over the next three-to-five years. A high-level narrative aligns the various ARIs to six strategic objectives for the justice system. Within each of these areas there are a set of questions. These aren’t exhaustive, definitive or prioritised; rather, they reflect the range and scope of the evidence needed, covering everything from ‘access to justice’ to ‘prisons’ and ‘reducing re-offending’. 

Taking the example of ‘access to justice’, there are sub-themes within it—such as ‘people’ or ‘families and children’—that include some key questions. What are people’s experiences of dealing with justice problems? How can they be supported to access and navigate the justice system, enforce their rights, and achieve the best outcomes? What are the long-term impacts on children’s developmental outcomes of placements made under public law orders in care proceedings? This includes care orders, placement orders and special guardianship orders.

Needs improvement

Although ARIs have been overwhelmingly positive in opening up government departments, they can still be developed further. Two recent government reports set out areas where they could be improved. 

Realising our Ambition Through Science (November 2019) suggested there should be more funding, and that it should be better coordinated. It made the point that research spending was “a fraction of one per cent of total spend” in some departments. In addition, though it welcomed ARIs, it stated that “there is a need for much closer dialogue and capability building between [departmental chief scientific advisers] and Whitehall’s key policy leaders”, as well as a need to support skills and capability building for evidence analysis within departments.

Rebuilding a Resilient Britain (February 2021) looked at how ARIs could be used to help recover from the pandemic. Nine working groups had been convened to examine a range of issues within three broad themes of rebuilding communities, environment and place, and local and global productivity. Each working group had a series of recommendations, but all broadly saw the benefit of developing cross-cutting ARIs that would help address issues that affected a range of different departments.

Next steps

ARIs are the beginning of a conversation with government, and you should respond to the invitation by emailing the relevant people—their details will be on their ARI document. Alternatively, join specific departmental networks (the Ministry of Justice is due to launch one this month), or broader ones, such as Universities Policy Engagement Network. Although the departments don’t offer funding directly to undertake research to answer questions, they may be able to help you make the case for support to funders.

Phil Ward is director of the Eastern Arc consortium, a collaboration between the universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com