We know that science has helped to shape policy during the Covid-19 pandemic and that the role of scientific advisers, as well as formal committees and systems, are engaged in day to day policymaking perhaps like never before. As we begin to leave lockdown we know that this expertise will remain vital and that it must continue to inform decisions and policy design.
So much for the pandemic, but what then about the broader academic community? Will the same ways of working and a close proximity to policymaking be required of other experts and disciplines? How, for example, will social sciences help to shape the economic recovery? How can schools, colleges and universities – as well as ministers – use education research to shape delivery and a new wave of reforms in the autumn? What will towns and cities look like after Covid-19? How will we all behave? How will we work? What does the future hold for the arts and creative industries? How will academic expertise shape our own response to the future including within our own institutions? How in turn will this shape the local, regional and national response?
And what of the policy challenges that existed before the pandemic? Tackling regional inequality and “levelling up”? Race and gender inequalities? Climate change? The impacts of technology? Mental health? Brexit?
Everywhere we look, it seems clear that the next few years are going to be dominated by big transformational policy agendas. The debates about the nature and influence of scientific expertise during the pandemic and about the structures and processes of science and research advice in parliament and in government will continue into this new period. The part where expert academics spend a great deal of their time thinking about policy and engaging with policymakers isn’t and shouldn’t be over. We will need the epidemiologists, the modellers and the behavioural scientists, the economists and social scientists, the historians and the artists – and more besides.
If this is a time that requires broader and deeper expert advice and support for policymakers, then it requires academics to engage more deeply and systematically. It also requires the incentives within universities to be part of that same approach. The government is committed to more than doubling its funding for R&D at the same time as its own need for scientific, medical, economic, social and other expertise in planning the recovery is intensifying. Policy stakeholders, funders and universities need to be working together to use some of this funding so that research is meeting this need.
Universities too need to build trust as well as public and political support for increasing investment in R&D. This requires us to show how our research and expertise can inform policymaking in ways that deliver better outcomes for everyone, in particular on the big issues that affect everyday life. We need to tell better stories about the value of academic expertise in public policy – including the importance of different kinds of knowledge and experience. It also requires us to take this agenda much more seriously. Not just those of us on the ground but from senior managers and leaders too.
So what more could universities be doing? Clearly a first step is to recognise public policy engagement as a clear priority within institutional strategies. This may not be enough by itself – academic-policy engagement is complex, dynamic and poorly understood. Dedicated and specialist resources are needed alongside better knowledge of what works.
A new Research England funded collaboration, Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement (CAPE), aims to make a step-change in our understanding and our capabilities. It seeks to scale up activity through designing and testing different mechanisms in five universities (our own institutions, Manchester and UCL, together with Cambridge, Northumbria and Nottingham). Through a range of engagement activities, close working with policy partners (including the Government Office for Science, the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, the Alliance for Useful Evidence and the Transforming Evidence Hub), and delivering activity in different geographical and policy contexts, we aim to determine those which are most effective. Throughout the project, we will also be working with other universities interested in building academic-policy engagement, including through the University Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) and sharing emerging learning with the wider university sector.
There are questions we will ask about how we best organise and incentivise the use of academic advice in public policy and how we ensure a diversity of voices and expertise. This will include existing systems in government, including GO Science, POST and groups like SAGE and NERVTAG, as well as considering routes at local and regional government level. Additionally, we hope the project will help to inform future considerations amongst funders, including UKRI, research councils and the effectiveness of processes such as the REF and KEF.
But there are also questions about how we prioritise and support academics in universities to engage in such work. We are clear that policy engagement requires significant commitment – from time and resource to a recognition that it is worthwhile and an essential aspect of departmental structures and academic careers. In other words, this isn’t just a “nice to have” or a niche activity. This is about building and improving a set of relationships that are crucial to the reputation of experts, their knowledge, and ultimately that of universities themselves.
We often criticise governments for not paying enough attention to academic evidence. Or for not understanding our timescales, incentives or processes and for failing to understand how science or academic research “works”. But we tend to spend less time turning this criticism on ourselves. How might we better compensate for these issues when we need evidence to be heard? What is our responsibility to policymakers and to society with regard to research and evidence? What are the tensions between academic priorities and policymaking? How should we be supporting the economic and social recovery from Covid-19? Is this one of the fundamental aspects of our being a public good? And should this be a much more important priority going forward?
Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement is funded through the Research England Development Fund. The five university partners are UCL and the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Northumbria and Nottingham. Further information is available on the CAPE website: www.cape.ac.uk and on Twitter: @CAPE_acuk