King’s College London institute brings academia closer to policy

High-profile visiting professors at King’s Policy Institute include Margaret Hodge, David Willetts and Charles Clarke

October 15, 2015
Students in linked circle on beach
Source: Alamy
Circle of thought: partnerships aim to bring in policymakers and build networks

Depending on what you think of how the country has been run in recent years, it might sound like a dream line-up of policy expertise: former Labour ministers Charles Clarke and Margaret Hodge, former Conservative universities and science minister David Willetts, and the permanent secretary to the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson.

They are all visiting professors at the Policy Institute at King’s College London, part of a group of 30 high-profile politicians, civil servants, business leaders and journalists assembled as the institute’s “Policy Circle”.

The Policy Institute was established by King’s in 2012, alongside the Cultural and Commercialisation institutes.

Jonathan Grant, its director, said the aim was to “make King’s more porous as an institution and to establish these units…at the interface of King’s as a world-class university and broader society”.

The institutes were a project led by Chris Mottershead, the King’s vice-principal (research and innovation) who joined the institution from BP.

Professor Grant came to the Policy Institute 18 months ago after six years as president of RAND Europe, having been a policy researcher focused on research and development policy and the impact agenda for much of his career.

He said that he came to the post with a “slight frustration that we weren’t maximising the value of what universities could offer society”.

As a result Professor Grant said that the Policy Institute is structured around addressing three weaknesses identified in research about the academia/policymaking relationship: that academic research is often “not timely or relevant for the policy window”, that both sides of the equation are “poor at developing networks and collaborations” and that academics are often “poor at communicating with policymakers”. He added that there were “good reasons” behind the latter two factors.

There are several elements to the Policy Institute’s work. Its partnerships aim to bring in policymakers and create networks. There is the Policy Circle and also the Strand Group seminar series, which has included speakers such as Tony Blair and Sir Iain Lobban, the former head of GCHQ.

The institute has also started “doing policy analysis work for clients” and will “bid for contracts coming out of government”, said Professor Grant. In this context, he cited its work for the Higher Education Funding Council for England on a project looking at the “nature, scale and beneficiaries of research impact”, which offered an initial analysis of 6,679 impact case studies submitted to the 2014 research excellence framework.

Professor Grant also highlighted the “deliberately very thinktank-esque” policy pamphlets published by the institute, which have included Mr Willetts writing on “Higher education: Who benefits? Who pays?”

The institute is a non-teaching department, “but we occasionally deliver teaching for other departments”, Professor Grant said. “I think our networks can help other departments in their teaching contributions.”

For instance, Sir Nicholas is to co-teach a new MA module at King’s on “The Treasury and Economic History Since 1945”, part of what is billed as the first institutional partnership between the Treasury and a UK university.

Ms Hodge, who comes to her visiting professorship at the institute after five years chairing the Public Accounts Committee, said that she would be writing a book on that time as well as carrying out research on migration in her constituency of Barking and Dagenham.

With that in mind, she had been “very keen to attach myself to an academic institution” and had already benefited from a “brainstorming session” with academics to assist with her forthcoming work on the PAC – which she added would be an “ideas book” about public services.

Jon Davis, a former banker who is director of partnerships and the Strand Group at the Policy Institute, will co-teach the Treasury module with Sir Nicholas.

Asked why it is important to get policymakers involved with teaching, he said: “If you don’t understand the complexity of decision-making, then what happens is it’s all too easy to build models that are irrelevant.”

Another partnership project is “Margaret Thatcher and No. 10” – a collaboration between the institute and Downing Street – a series of in-depth interviews with the key figures in the former prime minister’s government that will be made available online.

Asked if there was ever a danger that the institute could become too close to power to criticise it, Dr Davis replied that in Ms Hodge, it has just appointed someone who was “the scourge of the Treasury” in her PAC days.

As an example of consultancy-style work, Jennifer Rubin, director of policy analysis, highlighted work that the institute had carried out for the World Diabetes Congress on the effectiveness of bariatric surgery in addressing type 2 diabetes. The work, completed on a two-month turnaround, had drawn together findings from existing research as well as modelling potential costs.

Professor Rubin said that the institute had worked with every department at King’s and had found that many academics were “excited at the idea their knowledge might have broader relevance”.

In terms of relations between policymakers and academics across the sector, Professor Grant described it as “scandalous” that academics are not given more support in how to communicate their research.

He added that there is “such wealth of knowledge, such wealth of expertise: if we can’t communicate that well as a sector then we’re not maximising value”.

In numbers

30: Number of politicians, civil servants, business leaders and journalists in the Policy Circle

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Print headline: High-powered unit brings academia closer to policy

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Reader's comments (1)

Could John Morgan disclose 1) how Visiting Professorship appointments are made? (Most of the teaching staff and the students at Kings College passed a vote of no confidence in David Willetts, clearly they are treated with contempt by Jonathan Grant.) 2) Whether Visiting Professors are paid a salary by Kings College? 3) How close are the ties of Chris Mottershead to the government? (He is widely regarded as the architect of the disastrous cuts in 2010 and 2014, at the instigation of his former employer Lord Browne, who had selected Kings as the testing ground for 'disinvestment' in areas of Higher Education.