This was originally published on the Guardian Higher Education Network blog.
By Chris O’Brien
Back in 2008, a report by the Council for Science and Technology said “healthy engagement between academics and policymakers is essential to the provision of informed, evidence-based, world-class policymaking”.
But it is only in the past few months that the debate over how universities should actively seek to inform the policy process has come into the foreground.
The new “impact” element of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) has been the spur to action. The ability to prove that rigorous academic research has influenced the decisions of government policy advisers is destined to score highly in an assessment of societal and economic impact.
During a recent framework and impact conference at Bournemouth University, Kathryn Monk, science strategy manager for Environment Agency Wales, said policymakers are looking to academia to devote more energy to feeding research into the policy domain in the light of spending cuts that have reduced the numbers of government academics.
The killer line came next: “But things are going to have to change to allow this to happen.”
Much has been written about this change coming from academics themselves, particularly in the way they communicate their research findings to a policy audience. Civil servants may sometimes lack expert knowledge in their policy field because of regular staff reshuffles. They are nearly always time pressured. It is hardly surprising that they respond unfavourably – if at all – to lengthy technical documents landing in their inbox.
Explaining how academic research can benefit society, using incisive and engaging language in concise, well-designed briefings that can be shared with non-specialist peers and political lords and masters, is a key skill, but lobbying for policy change goes beyond that. It is about patience and persistence and developing long-term relationships, based on trust and respect, with those that have influence in the relevant policy area.
To succeed, universities will have to devise strategies at a central level for policymaker engagement. Academics need support in involving government advisers right from the outset of the research process rather than at the end.
This is a strategy that is pursued to great effect by thinktanks, as Professor Judy Sebba, a director of research and knowledge exchange at the University of Sussex, noted recently on the excellent Impact of Social Sciences blog run by the London School of Economics.
She identified three areas in which academia lagged behind thinktanks in its capacity to influence policy: failure to produce clear outcomes without caveats; reluctance to clearly define policy implications; and difficulty in communicating findings in an accessible way.
Yet surmount these barriers and universities are well placed – either as an alternative to thinktanks or as a partner. A major limitation of thinktanks, Sebba argues, is that, unlike academia, their work is not subject to peer review so the quality of their outputs is not assessed.
Informing policy decisions through academic research is a two-way process. Policymakers themselves must recognise the value to a university, under the new impact agenda, of being seen to influence policy.
I have spoken to several academics who have had negative experiences in communicating research findings to government advisers. They are reluctant to try again. Subsequent policy papers featured their ideas, but omitted any reference to the university or individual academic. For REF submissions, much will depend on academics being able to present solid evidence of the impact their research has made on the policy process. Universities could perhaps act collectively to raise awareness of this issue among civil servants.
Government departments can also look to academic research as a means to address the increasingly fragmented nature of policymaking. Through my work on a climate change adaptation project with the University of Exeter, it quickly became apparent that the research findings were all relevant to separate policies being formulated by several government departments. In these situations, academic research can act as a bridge between different areas of the civil service all working towards the same goal but with limited inter-department interaction.
So there are real opportunities for collaboration between academia and policymakers to improve the way the country is governed. Of course, it won’t always be harmonious. What happens if research findings deliver a raft of inconvenient truths that policymakers, for political or economic reasons, would rather ignore?
The noises from the REF impact pilot panels are that universities will receive as much credit for proving they have made a significant contribution to public debate as they would for a reference in a policy document.
Here, universities can learn from charities and campaign groups. Linking up with third sector lobbyists who cite research findings in their campaign literature and seeking opposition politicians pushing for evidence-based policy change are all skills that academics will have to nurture.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England is due to release detailed guidance on impact in July. Then the building of trust between the academic and the policy worlds can really begin.