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Policy engagement needs to leave its comfort zone

Sarah Chaytor and Andy Westwood describe a project to scale up universities’ work with policymakers

From epidemiological modelling and behavioural science to recovery support, the value of academic expertise has been evident in understanding Covid-19 and informing the response. The pandemic has also shone a light on the use of scientific advice in government policymaking—prompting, perhaps inevitably, some criticism of existing structures.

For those of us working on engagement between policy and academia—supporting academics and researchers and promoting the use of evidence and expertise in policy development and delivery—it also prompts questions about what universities are doing, and what more researchers and their institutions can do, to support, inform and improve policymaking.

There have been several reports in recent years, including from the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the Institute for Government and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, exploring barriers to collaboration between academics and policymakers and considering how to overcome them.

How well have universities responded? To what extent is support for policy engagement evident in institutional priorities? And how should Covid-19 change these?

A new collaboration funded by Research England aims to create a step change in our understanding and actions. Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement, or Cape, will look to scale up activity by designing and testing different mechanisms at five universities: our own—Manchester and University College London—plus Cambridge, Northumbria and Nottingham.

Pull and push

While no longer a niche activity, policy engagement is still not widespread or well established in academia, rarely ranking among a university’s priorities. Support remains patchy across institutions and lacking in systematic mechanisms. Where it exists, it varies from impact support functions to bespoke brokerages, think tanks and consultancies.

University strategies and academic behaviour are heavily influenced by incentives created by funders—and these are beginning to change. The introduction of the Research Excellence Framework, and more recently the Knowledge Exchange Framework, has put a greater focus on knowledge exchange and impact case studies.

In the past year, Research England’s allocation of a portion of quality-related funding to public policy activities may have prompted institutional changes. The Westminster parliament’s establishment of a Knowledge Exchange Unit underlines the desire for more academic engagement, as does government departments’ publication of areas of research interest. These are useful ‘pulls’ that institutions can ‘push’ towards. Interest is certainly growing: the Universities Policy Engagement Network now has 50 members.

But we have not yet created a step change in how we enable or prioritise policy engagement. Lacking specific incentives or funding, universities and academics have tended to focus on more established activities and those where paths for impact are better understood.

Much remains unknown about the most effective mechanisms, as well as how to capture the impact and quality of engagement. We also don’t know enough about how much institutional, geographical and policy contexts matter. Nor do we fully understand what success looks like.

Take a chance

Universities are perhaps happier to remain in their comfort zones than to take a chance on an uncertain, imprecise and poorly understood activity. Many academics and university leaders may still be suspicious of engaging in processes and relationships that are speculative, unbalanced, occasionally murky and profoundly uncertain. Often, it is easier to do nothing.

But this is a time that requires expert advice and support for policymakers. It requires academics to engage more deeply and systematically. The government is committed to more than doubling its funding for R&D. At the same time, its own need for scientific, medical, economic and social input is intensifying and accelerating. Universities need to build trust, as well as public and political support for increasing investment in R&D. This is a time to step up, not step back.

So what more could universities be doing? A first step is to recognise public policy engagement as a priority within institutional strategies. This may not be enough by itself—policy engagement is complex, dynamic and poorly understood. Dedicated and specialist resources are needed alongside better knowledge of what works.

Through a range of engagement activities, collaboration with our policy partners and work in different geographical and policy contexts, the Cape project aims to identify the most effective approaches. We will also be working with other universities interested in building policy engagement, and we will be sharing emerging learning throughout higher education.

Ultimately, decisions about whether and how to support policy engagement will depend on individual institutions—but research funders and policymakers can do more to stress the value of that support. Improving engagement between research and policy will bring significant benefits to everyone involved and to wider society as well. That matters now more than ever.

Sarah Chaytor is director of research strategy and policy and joint chief of staff in the office of the vice-provost for research at University College London. Andy Westwood is vice-dean for social responsibility in the humanities faculty and professor of government practice at the University of Manchester.