Universities must collaborate to better inform public policy


The coronavirus pandemic has brought many unexpected changes – including a sudden prime-time role for government scientific advisers.

What has until recently been rather a niche area within both government policymaking and university activity has now found itself centre stage – with not a few pitfalls along the way. As well as exposing some of the frictions in the scientific advice structures within government, this focus on how academic expertise feeds into policy development prompts reflections about how universities currently engage with public policy – and what more they could do.

There is a growing importance attached to the “impact agenda” in the UK – including a significant number of policy impact case studies in the last research excellence framework – and an increasing recognition of the importance of policy engagement among research funders. Nevertheless, this is not an area that has received a great deal of strategic focus in our higher education institutions.

This is perhaps partly due to the complexities of the public policy landscape. While there are some structures for engagement within the Westminster government and Parliament – as well as similar structures in the devolved administrations – these are not necessarily well understood among the majority of the academic community.

At the same time, academic-policy engagement remains a specialist, small-scale activity within universities. It lacks the mainstream institutional or funder support that business engagement or public engagement receive. Yet increasing the use of evidence in policymaking can benefit all of us, through supporting better and more effective policy outcomes – and not just during a crisis.

In the first instance, we will need to consider what further incentives are needed to support academics and researchers to engage with public policy stakeholders. Funding is obviously one, but we should also be thinking about promotions criteria and other career development support in order to effect broad cultural change throughout the academic community and at different career levels. This will need to recognise the uncertain and lengthy nature of academic-policy engagement, requiring early and ongoing collaboration in which impacts may emerge circuitously and over time.

We also can’t ignore the need for sustained investment to support skills training for researchers, facilitate networking and enable knowledge exchange and engagement opportunities. Additionally, dedicated people to broker academic-policy engagement and provide clear contact points can make a real difference.

So much for what individual institutions might do. But we also need to consider what more we can do collaboratively. At present, there are different universities doing different things in different ways. Knowledge of what is most effective is still evolving, so universities, funders and policy stakeholders are all, to some degree, working out the most effective means of engagement as we go. There is a great deal of enthusiasm, but we are not working as systematically or effectively as we could be as a sector.

It surely makes sense to pool our knowledge and capture lessons learned, as well as reflect on how we might collaborate in our engagement. The rapid growth of the UK-wide University Policy Engagement Network (now numbering 49 members) suggests that there is a keen appetite for institutional collaboration. A new Research England-funded collaboration of five universities – UCL, Northumbria, Cambridge, Manchester and Nottingham – and four partners from the world of public policy – will develop collaborative approaches to academic-policy engagement and share with the wider sector evidence of what works best in different contexts.

Through working more closely together for mutual benefit, we can also start to build routes for engagement in different modes, from formal to informal, and at different levels of government. We can aim to move beyond individual and bilateral relationships to something more systemic. And we can aim to simplify the means by which policy stakeholders can access academic expertise.

The use of scientific advice in the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has shown the importance of broader engagement to give voice to a greater diversity of expertise, rather than (apparently) relying on a smaller number of individuals. There is significant scope to enhance existing advisory structures with further complementary means of engagement that can allow a broader span of academic contribution.

As attention turns increasingly to the regional inequalities across the UK, there are also opportunities to consider the role of universities in supporting local and regional policy capacity and strengthening networks at these levels of government. It is not always clear to what degree local authorities currently have access to academic expertise or the extent to which it informs local policymaking – although there are some interesting new beginnings. There is great potential both for universities to work with their own regions but also, through greater collaboration across regions, to widen the contribution of academic expertise.

Collaboration will be crucial to improving the way in which both individual institutions and the sector as a whole can enhance engagement at all levels of the public policy sphere. Together, we can and must be more than the sum of our parts.

Author Bios: David Price is Vice-Provost (research) and Sarah Chaytor is Director of Research Strategy and Policy at UCL. Andrew Wathey is Vice-Chancellor of Northumbria University.