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Thought boxes and bubbles

First Nic Beech and co-authors, then Simon Kaye, discuss improving collaboration between academics and policymakers

A paradox box could improve academic engagement with policy, according to Nic Beech, Katy J Mason, Robert MacIntosh and Diana Beech

Given that society is not short of challenges that could benefit from academic input, how can universities and policymakers collaborate more effectively to provide workable solutions? The answer may be that they shouldn’t—in the traditional sense—but instead should establish zones of contiguous learning in which two different cultures come into touch with each other without being required to satisfy precursors for collaborating.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, collaborative working between policymakers and academics shifted to a new level. Expertise was brought to bear on vaccine innovation and development, supply chains were established, and joint working between universities, pharmaceutical and health organisations was achieved when politicians were overt in being science-led. 

There were episodes of waste and sub-optimal decision making, but for a while researchers and policymakers in many parts of the world had a common definition of success, explicitly valued the role of the other and shared a sense of urgency and priority.

Different cultures

In normal times, policymakers and academics live in cultures that are fundamentally different in their experience of social reality. Academics are promoted and gain peer-esteem from working intensely on a focal area, publishing incrementally over many years and demonstrating their impact on other researchers through their citations. 

Conversely, politicians frequently have a short stay in any one area as they work their way up through junior to senior government positions, having to master new briefs with which they are unfamiliar and make an impact that will gain credibility with the media, voters and their party hierarchy in a few months. 

It is easy for academics to regard politicians as lacking rigour and depth while the reciprocal perception is that academics take a long time to produce outputs that are largely only readable by other academics, and so of little use in deciding and setting policy.

Ideally, politicians seek ‘powerful statistics’ combined with impactful anecdotes that can be transformed into catchy slogans for deployment at the despatch box or in press releases so they can attract public support for their policies.

Based on research with leading academics around the world and politicians who have occupied the top echelons of government, we recognise there is a will to collaborate, but a series of paradoxes need to be resolved first: opposing definitions of rigour, usefulness, timeliness and value.

Normal rules suspended

Normally when establishing a collaborative process it is necessary to establish the precursors in which cultural differences are resolved, rather like the atypical interactive conditions of the pandemic. While this may be desirable, it is not always feasible or necessary. 

The ‘paradox box’ is a novel type of learning zone in which we suspend the normal rules of the two cultures and act as if collaborating without having to fully understand each other or resolve differences. The paradox box excludes the contradictions that normally get in the way of collaborative generation and use of research. It provides a social site for contiguous learning in which academics and policymakers are adjacent and provide stimulation for the other to use without co-designing problems and solutions.

Two key design principles underpin a paradox box. First, the culturally defined rule-following activities that dominate action in the home cultures should be suspended—for example, the ways of thinking that go into producing peer-reviewed articles in academia and political speeches in policymaking.

Instead, new rules—the kind one might expect for improvisation or game playing—need to be established. These include valuing differences rather than seeking to resolve them; supporting others’ endeavours by providing expert knowledge as a resource for the other rather than prescribing solutions; permitting and encouraging the aggregation and disaggregation of ideas and evidence in novel ways rather than insisting on representational conventions; and being willing to suspend judgement of others and the self. 

The aim of the new rules is to provide stimulation that can help the other to learn for their own purposes, not to direct the other’s learning or conclusions.

Second, in the paradox box, the knowledge receiver rather than the provider defines a knowledge resource’s value. Acknowledging sources and protocols around how specific forms of knowledge are produced and facilitating learning engagement can help both sides negotiate ethical boundaries around interpretation—but not around how knowledge is used. This must be left to the receiver, who will bring to it their own expertise and purpose.

Rewarding behaviour

It is crucial, however, that this behaviour is not only facilitated but rewarded in each participant’s home culture. Policymakers need to be able to extract and abstract what is useful and use it in ways that gain credit with their stakeholders of voters and party hierarchies. 

Equally, universities and research funders need to recognise and reward this kind of academic effort, which may lead to expansive, discernible influence—or merely one soundbite—or may be absorbed into a fast-moving context in which the potential value of great work is overtaken by political events. Such recognition could be achieved by incorporating feedback from policymakers into promotion and funding decisions.

Facilitating the paradox box learning zone will require skill. It will also require a willingness for each side to open themselves up to an improvised, ethical—but not direct—exchange of knowledge.

Nic Beech (Middlesex University), Katy J. Mason (Lancaster University), Robert MacIntosh (Northumbria University) and Diana Beech (London Higher). The full paper, Learning from Each Other: Why and How Business Schools need to create a ‘paradox box’ for academic-policy impact is published in the Academy of Management Learning and Education. The authors also have a video discussing their work


Simon Kaye sees a solution in Reform’s new scholarship scheme

The connection between professional research expertise and policymaking in the UK isn’t where it should be. Our country has one of the largest, most dynamic, and most diverse academic sectors in the world. Yet, as those who work within government know best, it is often incredibly difficult to bring insights from that world into the conversations and processes where they are needed. Not for nothing do we conventionally refer to Westminster and Whitehall as ‘bubbles’.

I know from my own experience as a former early career academic that bursting these bubbles is hard work. Even someone with a strong interest in contemporary policy, decent contacts with people in the policy ‘world’, and a desire to write and speak to practitioners and non-academic audiences can find it hard to find a route through.

Even when expertise does break through—or even when it is specifically sought out—there is no guarantee that the machinery of government will know what to do with it. There are filters on both sides. The academics who are most often heard through consultation exercises, evidence sessions, engagement with policy organisations or direct interaction with government departments are, naturally enough, those with the most prestige: it’s unusual for academics at the early or mid-career stages to have their voices consistently heard.

Making sense of evidence

There are also problems with reception. Our politicians and officials tend to be generalists and they tend to come from a limited range of intellectual backgrounds. The people making decisions are therefore not usually equipped to make sense of the opinions or evidence that do emerge from research in the many areas in which they have no personal expertise and no access to someone who combines sufficient subject-specific understanding with the reality and trade-offs of policy.

When new information must be speedily analysed and translated into workable policy choices—as, for example, during a pandemic involving a novel virus—the scale of this challenge becomes clear. The political expediency of appearing to ‘follow the science’ will tend to mask the deep uncertainty, and multiple possible interpretations, of the insights that are available, as if ‘science’ can produce clear, self-evident, and monolithic directives to governments.

The whole relationship between policymaking and expertise needs a rethink. At our think tank, Reform, we want to be a part of that. We have a simple idea for a way of bringing academic insight to the policy world. We hope it will develop policy skills and new networks for the academics who participate, become a powerful source of new thinking for practitioners, and strengthen the range and depth of our output as a policy organisation.

We’re calling this new programme Reform Scholars, and in its first year we are keen to experiment with the model and find out what works. We’ve partnered with a group of brilliant university faculties and dedicated policy units, including Policy@Manchester, the Imperial Policy Forum, the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of York, and the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society at King’s College London. And there are more partners joining all the time.

Policy papers

We then ask these partners to advertise a year-long opportunity in their academic communities, open to anyone from final-year PhD students and post-docs to well-established senior lecturers. All they must do is identify which of their past or ongoing research projects they would like to develop into a short, impactful policy paper in partnership with Reform, for dissemination to our organisation’s deep networks of politicians and policy professionals.

Over the course of a year, these Reform Scholars will be invited to our events and brought into conversations about our ongoing programmes of policy research, so they can benefit from a lasting new array of networks and contacts that go beyond the usual academic audiences.

Today’s academics are, more strongly than ever, incentivised to define the ‘impact’ of their work in ways that go beyond the stature of the journals they publish in or the numbers of academic citations their work attracts. We hope to harness this and provide a valuable outlet—not just an opportunity for an off-beat and impactful new publication, but something with the potential to shift which academic voices are given platforms in the policy world.

We also understand how hard pressed early and mid-career academics are, and how many demands are placed on their time. Reform Scholars can engage as much or as little as they are able, and at different points of the academic year different amounts of involvement will be possible. We want the programme to be informal, flexible and accommodating. And if an academic is keen to pursue third-party funding to support their work with us, we will support that too.

It’s a simple idea. But the potential for mutual benefit and gain is clear: Reform will enjoy new relationships and partnerships across the UK’s academic sector, develop a growing network of rising academic stars and add intellectual gravitas to our programmes of work. Meanwhile, the academics we work with will gain a new access point to influential networks, experience of reaching different audiences and a publication designed for impact of a different kind.

It’s early days—we’re assembling our first cohort of scholars now. If you’d like to learn more, get in touch!

Simon Kaye is director of policy at the think tank Reform