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Whitehall’s pleas for help are an ice-breaker, not a shopping list


Areas of research interest offer a window into government, say Kathryn Oliver and Annette Boaz

In his 2015 review of UK research councils, Paul Nurse argued that government was not getting value for money from its investment in research. The gap between funders and policymakers was too wide; departments were not getting the evidence they needed.

In response, in 2017 government departments and other bodies began publishing their areas of research interest, setting out the things they most wanted to know. At present, the only department without an ARI document is the Treasury.

Over the past four years, we have been working with the Government Office for Science and the Economic and Social Research Council to understand and promote ARIs.

We worked with departments to write guidance and develop processes to support a more diverse and holistic approach to articulating research interests. We analysed ARIs, identified diverse experts, and facilitated knowledge exchange; we broadened expert networks, and worked with funders to understand how to get evidence to policymakers.

When we began in 2019, ARIs were published in PDF or html format on gov.uk, making them almost impossible to search or analyse. So we commissioned a public, searchable database of ARIs, launched on 11 September.

Who wants to know?

This makes it easier to find and do policy-relevant research and shows linked research projects and relevant publications. Strategic analysis of ARIs should help government and funders identify policy and research priorities in real time, connecting with other initiatives such as the Science and Technology Framework.

Such analysis can also help to identify orphan issues, where multiple departments are interested in a topic but lack an overall lead; shared topics, where multiple departments are commissioning overlapping and potentially redundant work; and areas where a department is not seeking research input but probably should be. 

Because ARIs are made public, they also bring transparency. The new database offers interesting possibilities for analysing and scrutinising government R&D and its prioritisation of spending on research and knowledge exchange.

ARIs do not simply kickstart projects. We found they improve connections across the science policy system in many ways beyond stimulating evidence production. They help funders and researchers to frame their questions and coordinate research, knowledge exchange and policy activity.

Come hither

ARIs are best thought of as an invitation, not a list of research questions. They are a call from government to external experts to build long-term, trusting partnerships, and a window into a department’s priorities, policy portfolio, way of working, and the tools at its disposal. Funders and researchers can and are using them to plan knowledge exchange events, as well as new research.

In our experience, ARIs work best when they are the public face of an internally consistent science strategy that reflects a department’s policy priorities. This means they vary from department to department. For some they are an articulation of the whole science system, for others a curated list of conversation topics, and for others a strategic engagement document.

We also found that the answers to most ARIs are already out there, either in the published literature or ongoing projects. For example, when we looked at the government’s Rebuilding a Resilient Britain programme, which produced ARIs relating to recovery from the Covid pandemic, we found that relevant evidence was available for over 89 per cent of cases.

What government wants to know also shows what capabilities and skills it needs. For example, a remarkable 80 per cent of ARIs require social science expertise. Are early career social scientists being trained to think about getting involved with policy?

Joining the dots

Finally, in recent years the funding for policy-relevant research has shifted from departmental budgets to the research councils. ARIs join the dots between the two. 

This works both ways: funders have consulted with us about how to draw on ARIs in planning their strategic investments, and the Department of Health and Social Care’s recently updated ARIs set out how support from funders such as the National Institute for Health Research will be used to deliver them.

ARIs have been an undoubted success. More organisations in the UK are thinking about using ARIs, including charities and think tanks. The US government has started producing Learning Agendas serving a similar purpose.

Even so, we found that any effort to move the system took long months of planning, teamwork, relationship-building and networking from everyone involved. Future work will need to focus on providing a forum to analyse ARIs, coordinate research, synthesis and knowledge exchange, and continue to build links between the components of the system.

Kathryn Oliver is professor of evidence and policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Annette Boaz is professor of health and social care policy at the LSHTM.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight