Academic recognition for public policy work is slowly gathering pace

To tackle the challenge of implementing evidence-based policy, change is also needed in the university sector, says Gavin Costigan

June 3, 2017
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Issues surrounding how universities should work with industry on commercialisation of research have been a topic of conversation in the UK for at least 30 years. There is a major report on university-business collaboration every 18 months or so, immortalising the names of Dowling, Lambert, Witty, Adonis, Hauser and the rest.

Many of these reports bemoan a lack of progress and highlight things that still need to be done. Yet however slow things seem at any one moment, the environment for such commercialisation and enterprise activities within British universities has been transformed beyond recognition over three decades. We may now be in the early stages of another major change – in the area of public policy. 

One could argue that four things have helped drive the steady embracing of enterprise activities in UK universities. The first is the presence of early champions from the academic community, who were prepared to take the risks and show what could be achieved. The second is money, with direct incentives for researchers to work in more applied areas of research and to get involved in commercialisation activities.

These two led to the third, recognition, both a steady cultural change where working with companies has become beneficial rather than detrimental to an academic career, and the recognition within universities that this type of activity should be a scheduled part of academic workload models. Finally, professional support structures in universities have emerged. These units have grown and developed and learned lessons from others – they are utterly transformed from the technology transfer offices of the 1990s. 

So, is something similar happening in public policy? After all, reports on the need for evidence-based policymaking and scientific advice to government are issued almost as frequently as those on university-business collaboration. Mostly, these look at the demand side for evidence and expertise, berating government and the Civil Service in equal measure.

But steady progress has happened here – a growth in influence of the government’s chief scientific adviser, the development of a network of chief scientists across departments, a reinvigoration of the science and engineering profession within the Civil Service (with similar networks for social scientists and economists), and more exchange of people in and out of the public sector. It’s certainly a very different Civil Service now to the one that I joined, fresh from university and with a science degree in hand, in 1993. 

There is, as always, more work to be done. But to fully tackle the challenge of evidence-based policy, change is also needed on the supply side. In a country such as the UK, with relatively few national laboratories, that means UK universities. And – at least from a glass-half full perspective – things are, slowly, beginning to happen. 

Of course, like collaboration with industry, there have long been academics making major contributions to policy. Yet until recently, many have been successful despite, rather than because of, the funding and reward structures around them. Even in the social sciences, which traditionally have been closer to policymakers, it was possible to go a whole career without seeing the inside of a government department. 

But that is changing, and part of that change is driven by cash. Since the 2014 research excellence framework, we now have impact case studies, with a four-star rated one worth perhaps £60,000 to £80,000 per year to those who’ve achieved it. Suddenly there is a financial incentive to take this policy stuff just a bit more seriously and people are responding. In addition to the REF, policy impact statements are now a requirement of many research council grants. While panels still make judgements based on the quality of the research, researchers now get an element of funding to deliver their impact, including public policy impact.

Add to that small grants specifically focused on impact, and the Impact Acceleration Accounts run by some research councils, and there is money to be had. 

Academic recognition for public policy work is beginning. It remains true that winning research grants and publishing in the right journals are the key academic success factors, with (these days) an increasing attention paid to teaching metrics. But delivery of policy impact is beginning, very slowly, to count for something. 

Several universities – my own included – are experimenting with support structures in this new area. Almost all these policy units are less than five years old and many universities have brought into their teams professionals with experience from the world of policymaking. There is no established model, sizes and functions vary widely, and just as in the early days of enterprise, we are all watching and learning from each other.

That said, activities of these units tend to fall into four broad categories. The first is working with academics in a bottom-up approach, taking evidence from research they’ve conducted and helping deliver policy outcomes as a result. This can include helping to present the findings in a suitable format, identifying the relevant policy stakeholders and directly brokering meetings and events. 

The second is almost the reverse – identifying the needs of policymakers and matching them to evidence and expertise within the university. This could be through direct approaches to government departments (and other bodies, such as local authorities), supporting colleagues responding to consultations and inquiries, and bringing together policymakers and academics through organised visit programmes. 

These two areas of work seem to form the bulk of what these new units do, with two further areas a smaller element of the total. One is organising training for academic colleagues in aspects of the policymaking process and how to best interact with it. The other is seeking secondments for staff and postgraduate students into policymaking organisations. 

It is early days and there are no doubt many reasons why public policy work could just be a passing fad. But I take a different view. I think that we are at the start of a significant and permanent change – but in typical UK university style, it’s another slow revolution.

Gavin Costigan is director of public policy at the University of Southampton

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