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

At a time when the need for reliable evidence to inform policy-making could hardly be clearer, five universities will become partner institutions in the Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement initiative

Five universities are to become partner institutions in a national project to improve academic-policy engagement.

The project led by UCL will explore how universities can effectively inform public debate and policymaking at a time when the need for reliable evidence could hardly be greater.

Research England has awarded UCL £3.9m to lead the project that brings together the universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Nottingham and Northumbria. The three-year Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement (CAPE) initiative has been bolstered by funds from the partner institutions, bringing the total value of the project to nearly £10m.

UCL said this new project would help inform help local and central government make “effective and successful” policy interventions at a time of increasing pressure on public finances.

Input and backing for the scheme will also come from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the Government Office for Science, the Alliance for Useful Evidence, and Transforming Evidence.

Several universities, including Glasgow, Manchester, Nottingham and Bath, have launched institutes of policy and engagement in recent years in a bid to share their expertise and ideas with a broader audience.

Dr Olivia Stevenson is the project’s co-lead and head of public policy at UCL.

“The CAPE project takes seriously the need to increase and include diversity of thought, people and places in academic-policy engagement. By doing so CAPE will be able to develop a deeper knowledge base of how the world of academia and public policy can work more effectively together to deliver significant real-world benefits,” she said.

The debate around how best to bring informed thinking to government hit the headlines earlier this week, following Michael Gove’s Ditchley Lecture on Saturday 27 June.

In a talk entitled ‘The privilege of public service’, he argued that:

… there are a limited number, even in the senior civil service, who have qualifications or expertise in mathematical, statistical and probability questions – and these are essential to public policy decisions. As governments in developed nations go, we in the UK are lagging behind many others in terms of numerical proficiency. But so many policy and implementation decisions depend on understanding mathematical reasoning. 

While Mr Gove concluded that the problem spoke to a need for reformed recruitment and training, it is also the kind of gap between knowledge holders and decision-makers that better academic-policy engagement could help fill.

“University research can offer a wealth of insight to inform complex policy questions,” said Professor David Price, UCL vice-provost (research) and principal investigator.

“But neither universities nor policymakers are currently engaging as effectively as we might to ensure the translation of academic expertise into the policy sphere.”

The CAPE project takes seriously the need to increase and include diversity of thought, people and places in academic-policy engagement.
Dr Olivia Stevenson, UCL

As well as piloting several interventions to improve the quality of academic input into public policy, CAPE hopes to connect experts at the five universities with policymakers more quickly. The initiative will also build resources to support academics and institute a virtual Centre for Universities and Public Policy to offer a platform for networking and sharing knowledge.

“This project will make an important contribution to our emerging understanding of how universities can best support academics and researchers to engage with public policy,” said David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England.

“[It] will help us to understand different geographical contexts and the important role that universities can play in and across regions as well as nationally.”

In 2018, Universities UK released a report on the public’s attitude towards higher education, based on views collected from a series of workshops organised by the polling company Britain Thinks. The majority surveyed were ambivalent towards the sector and considered universities largely irrelevant.

A report published in February by Policy Exchange urged universities to take a more active role in society or risk losing public support. “[The HE sector should] position itself as supporting government, business and civil society to achieve wider social and economic outcomes and reflect the whole of the UK,” the report recommended.

You may also like: Nottingham University launches Institute of Policy and Engagement


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