Academic-policy engagement: from the niche to the mainstream

Sarah Chaytor, UCL’s director of research strategy and policy, says a new UCL-led project will give academics the tools to influence policy

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the increasingly urgent need for research evidence and expertise to inform policymaking. Whilst particularly evident at a time of crisis, this is just as important for the complex policy challenges we face in the future – from economic and social recovery to environmental sustainability.

The publication of the government’s R&D roadmap and the scale of the planned investment in R&D (an additional £22bn of public funding by 2024) makes the question of how to maximise public benefit from research even more pertinent. Such a substantial public spending commitment requires public consent; universities will need to be able to show how they are creating public benefit and helping to address some of the societal challenges that matter to individuals and communities.

The contribution of research evidence and academic expertise to public policy is an important way for university research to deliver social and economic benefit. Building links with policy professionals can help to illuminate policy considerations and enhance mutual understanding. Ensuring that policy development and decision making can draw on evidence makes them more robust. Ultimately, better-informed policymaking delivers better policy.

How can the research community make time to engage with policy professionals when individuals are also struggling with new workload demands and adjusting to new ways of working?

Whilst we know that academic engagement with public policy is important, we also know it’s difficult. Engaging with public policy is often full of uncertainty for researchers and academics and can seem an obscure process with uncertain rewards. It can be highly time-consuming, yet deliver few tangible outcomes. And there are significant cultural barriers, ranging from mutual lack of understanding, to different timescales in working, to opposing incentives, to lack of established structures and processes for engagement and insufficient understanding of what really works.

This is before we get to the additional complications of Covid-19, ranging from the intellectual to the practical. There are complex challenges involved in the UK’s recovery from Covid-19, from how to shore up the economy, to managing the physical and mental health burden, to tackling inequalities. Our response to them will need to be informed by evidence and expertise to be as effective as possible.

But this is also where some very logistical questions arise. How best can we foster engagement between researchers and policy professionals whilst working remotely? How can we build the new relationships that will be needed to ensure that the widest possible expertise can contribute in the age of Zoom? How can the research community make time to engage with policy professionals when individuals are also struggling with new workload demands and adjusting to new ways of working?

Sarah Chaytor, UCL’s director of research strategy and policy, says policy engagement should become a visible part of the university agenda

These are some of the questions that we hope to address through a new project, Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement (CAPE), led by UCL in collaboration with the universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Northumbria and Nottingham. CAPE also involves four policy partners: the Government Office for Science, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the Alliance for Useful Evidence, and the Transforming Evidence Hub. We further benefit from expertise drawn from academia, local, regional and national government; think tanks; funders; and policy organisations in our Advisory Board and the external advisors to our project delivery group who will help to provide constructive challenge and strategic advice.

The CAPE project will deliver a number of activities, including policy fellowships, knowledge exchange and engagement events, seed funding schemes and training for researchers and policy professionals. All of our activities will be co-developed with policy stakeholders to address relevant issues, embed mutual relevance, and ensure that the project activities are responding to policy need.

This award will both help CAPE partners to build the scale of activity in our own institutions but also to engage with the wider university sector, working with the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) and others. We hope this project will take academic-policy engagement from a niche activity to one that has greater visibility within universities and beyond.

We will also be sharing our learning from the project as it progresses. Evaluation of our activities will be embedded from the start to enable us to apply our learning to the development of activities, and to disseminate emerging insights across the sector. We intend to work closely with funders, particularly Research England, so that the learning from the project can also feed into future iterations of the REF and KEF. And we also want the project to create an evidence base that both our consortium and the wider sector can draw on to support academic-policy engagement in the future.

There’s never been a better time to scale up academic-policy engagement and start to take it much more seriously within universities and beyond. We hope that CAPE will make a substantive and meaningful contribution that can benefit the university sector, the public policy sphere, and wider society.

Read more: UCL heads £10m project to improve academic-policy engagement

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