The government could improve the quality of advice it receives and save a large amount of money by using academics as consultants, an academic has suggested.
Writing on the London School of Economics’ British politics and policy blog, Thom Brooks, reader in law at Durham University, notes that according to newspaper estimates, the UK government spent up to £800 million on private consultants and short-term staff in 2012‑13.
Dr Brooks says this bill could be greatly reduced by tapping into the specialist knowledge of UK academics. Using them as consultants would also allow the government to demonstrate it was serious about the impact agenda, giving academics a genuine opportunity to influence policy by incentivising them to communicate their ideas in “non-technical” language.
“Most academics I speak to say they would love to air their ideas about policy to ministers,” he told Times Higher Education.
Dr Brooks suggested that academics from within and across institutions could form semi-permanent research policy units – which might also include private consultants – to tender for specific Whitehall projects.
He believed that consultancy would benefit the teaching and research of academics working in areas relevant to policy by giving them first-hand insights into “the creaking machinations of government” through which ideas “transmit themselves into action”.
He also denied that consultancy work would amount to “suspending research and being a slave to the government” for a period of time, because many such projects might dovetail with academics’ personal research agendas and result in publications.
As well as acquiring more impact case studies for the research excellence framework, universities would benefit from a small funding boost over and above the cost of buying out academics’ time, Dr Brooks argued.
They would also be able to say to prospective students that “our staff don’t just sit behind desks: they are putting these things into practice”.
For these reasons, he predicted that involvement in consultancy would “not hurt” academics’ prospects for promotion – particularly if those who took time out to pursue such work were allowed to submit fewer papers to the REF.
Hence, even though Dr Brooks did not envisage academics taking a cut of consultancy fees, they could derive indirect financial advantage from their involvement.
He was also confident that academics would be sufficiently fleet of foot to submit tenders within deadlines and arrange teaching cover if they won the contracts.
He denied that the spirit of his suggestion clashed with the campaign he spearheaded in 2011 against mentions of the Conservative Party’s “Big Society” agenda in the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s delivery plan.
The document said that the AHRC’s “connected communities” theme could be relevant to exploring the concept.
Dr Brooks said he had objected not to the idea of academics working on politically sensitive topics, but rather to funding such work out of an autonomous research council’s “ever-decreasing” budget, which was supposed to be aimed at “research excellence wherever it might be found” and to be “friendly” to blue-skies approaches.
“Consultancy may unearth inconvenient truths: it is not about doing the government’s bidding. But it would be a more explicitly political kind of project. It should be seen for what it is and be funded through a separate bidding process,” he said.