Working together for the public good

Mark Shucksmith considers whether better knowledge exchange between academics and the third sector could serve as a mechanism for social change

April 26, 2016
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Better together: good public policy can often best be achieved with a coordinated approach

Academics’ research is highly trusted but rarely used by policymakers. With more than 200,000 academics working in UK universities, this is a huge missed opportunity for better-informed policy. How could we do more to translate this expertise into social impact – to put our research excellence to public service?

My new report for the Carnegie UK Trust, InterAction: How Can Academics and the Third Sector Work Together to Influence Policy and Practice? explores what we can do to make this happen. You might ask: why?

First, it’s important to remember that both third-sector practitioners and academic institutions are knowledge creators working for the public benefit. Each has a shared interest in achieving impact and, although they work with different types of knowledge and expertise, they have real potential together to improve social policy and practice. This doesn’t always happen at the moment and our research suggests that there is a real gap to fill.

Policymakers and practitioners are often eager to find reliable evidence to help inform their work but, while thirsty for knowledge, they tend to drown in a sea of information. Drawing on the accumulated expertise and knowledge of an established academic can be really helpful. For their part, academics often lack a sophisticated grasp of policy processes, so working together with larger third-sector organisations can help them communicate more effectively. Equally, voluntary and community organisations can find their work taken more seriously if it is produced in collaboration with respected academics.

The knowledge exchange process itself can be highly innovative and lead to new insights, especially if academics and third-sector partners engage in genuine co-creation. It is also more likely to lead to more grounded and helpful recommendations.

But there are some challenges to consider.

Each sector often has different ideas about what constitutes “evidence” and how it should be produced and used. The academic world tends to be motivated towards the publication of specialist journal articles, whereas the third sector is motivated primarily towards the delivery of social change and social impact. Many third-sector organisations would like to have their research critically assessed and “Uni-proofed” but find it too expensive. Moreover, they find universities impenetrable, and their outputs couched in incomprehensible jargon.

My report draws on contributions to a series of Carnegie round tables and on earlier research to identify the major obstacles to greater cooperation between academics and the third sector, as well as highlighting emerging opportunities, such as embedded gateways and service learning. The building of long-term relationships with policymakers across both sectors is fundamental, as evidence accumulates that knowledge exchange is above all a social process. Also crucial is more understanding of, and investment in, the process of “alchemy” by which academic findings are translated into accessible and usable forms.

Recommendations outlined in the report include the suggestion of secondments, the employment of “knowledge brokers”, face-to-face meetings and learning workshops. Encouraging third-sector organisations to enlist academics on to their boards may be an easy win. Similarly, earlier and more substantive third-sector involvement in academic project advisory groups could improve the relevance and timeliness of academic work.

The funding context is important and, although some resources are available, engagement remains the “third strand” poor relation, and more encouragement could be given. The Higher Education Funding Council for England and Research Councils UK might seek to develop funding models that offer greater support and stronger incentives for knowledge exchange and co-creation between academics and the third sector, recognising and addressing the imbalances of financial resources.

This is an opportune moment as we reaffirm the public purpose of universities and emphasise the role of science in society. Although it is just a starting point, I hope that this report will serve to encourage universities, the third sector and funders to consider how they can work more effectively together and to draw on each other’s strengths for the public good.

Mark Shucksmith is professor of planning and director of the Institute for Social Renewal at Newcastle University.

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