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Political positioning

A UKRI scheme gives access to the corridors of power

After a pilot round in 2021, UK Research and Innovation’s Policy Fellowships have returned with a wider scope. A greater number of government departments and five What Works Centres have put themselves forward to host fellows, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have joined the Economic and Social Research Council, which piloted the scheme, as partners.

The fellowships are worth £170,000 for those working with government departments or £210,000 for those engaging with the What Works Network. UKRI will fund 80 per cent of the cost, with the host institution expected to provide the rest. A total of 49 fellowships are available, each running for 18 months. The deadline is 20 April.

James Canton, deputy director of public policy and engagement for the Economic and Social Research Council, says applicants should be cognisant of the needs of their prospective hosts.

What do the fellowships involve?

Researchers will work closely with policy and analytics teams to co-produce and collaborate in creating research projects that respond to pressing matters and global challenges. They will work on policy areas that cover fiscal sustainability, online regulation, natural science and agronomy—the full list is in the call.

How are they structured?

There are three phases, starting with an inception phase of up to three months. That phase is about building a relationship with the host and starting to co-design the projects so that during the main placement phase they can hit the ground running. The main placement lasts 12 months. They will be delivering research projects they’ve co-designed but also thinking about how they can build the capability of the policy team and create connections between academia and policy.

The final three months is the knowledge exchange phase, which is about maximising impact. They will no longer be embedded in the department and can focus on conferences, publications and sharing learning. 

Who are the host organisations?

There are 22 government hosts, including the Cabinet Office, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, the Number 10 data science team and all the devolved governments. There are also the five What Works Centres.

Are applications restricted to researchers in the disciplines covered by the three councils?

No, if someone can demonstrate that they can generate interdisciplinary insights by combining those disciplines with other academic disciplines then we will consider their application. For example, a computer scientist with expertise in computational modelling who shows how they can apply those skills to economic, social science or biotechnological questions will be eligible.

What career stage is this scheme relevant to?

Policy Fellowships with a UK or devolved government host are aimed at early to mid-career academics, while fellowships with a What Works Network centre host are open to all career stages. 

Any tips for applicants?

It is not just about academic expertise. You need to demonstrate that you can listen, understand and respond effectively to the questions and challenges that policymakers face. During the interview, the hosts will be asking themselves: ‘Is this someone we can work with?’ It’s important to show you’re passionate about applying your experience to that policy area. Early career researchers should also look at the guidance on strengthening their application, such as by bringing in mentorship from their academic institution.

What did winning applicants to the pilot scheme do well?

They made their depth of expertise relevant to policy questions accessible to people working in a policymaking environment. Winning applicants tended to be good communicators and willing to listen and learn.

What common mistakes were there in applications?

The main mistake was thinking that this is a regular grant where you must put forward a research project with detailed methodology. That’s not what we are looking for. It’s much more like a job application. Yes, you need to demonstrate your academic rigour and you can show that you’ve thought about what a potential project might look like, but we don’t want to see pages of planning for a project but nothing on your interest in the policy area and the softer skills like communication.

What have previous fellows gone on to do?

Two examples come to mind. Robin Lovelace, one of our 10 Downing Street data science fellows, has in the last few months been appointed interim director of data and analysis at Active Travel England, an arm’s-length body in the Department for Transport. Rowena Hill, meanwhile, took up a fellowship in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. She had a lot of impact there and the fellowship was an important part of her being appointed as a professor at Nottingham Trent University.  

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