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”.
30: Number of politicians, civil servants, business leaders and journalists in the Policy Circle
University College London
A neuroscientist has been awarded an international prize for her work on understanding brain development during adolescence. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, from University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, will receive the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize – worth SFr1 million (£677,000) – at an award ceremony in Zurich in December. The work of Professor Blakemore – whose father is former Medical Research Council chief executive Sir Colin Blakemore, also a distinguished neuroscientist – has helped to overturn the belief that no major neurodevelopmental changes occur after early childhood.
Soas, University of London
A book written by an undergraduate has been read an astonishing 13 million times on a popular reading website. A Muslim’s Romantic Journey was posted on the Wattpad website by its author Humaira Chaudri, a third-year Islamic studies student at Soas, University of London. “When I started writing this book, I wasn’t sure anyone was going to read it,” said Ms Chaudri, who said that she was “pleasantly surprised” by the novel’s incredible success.
University of Warwick
A UK university has been granted European funding to develop its teaching of liberal arts degrees. The University of Warwick, the only UK institution involved in the scheme, was awarded €275,000 (£203,475) to develop innovative ways to enable the implementation of undergraduate research strategies in liberal arts education curricula. The money is funded through Erasmus+, the European Union programme for education, training, youth and sport. The other institutions to receive funding are: University College Roosevelt and Leiden University College, both in the Netherlands; Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany; and Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania.
Fusion reactors could become an economically viable means of generating electricity within a few decades, according to new university research. Physicists from Durham University, in conjunction with the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, added that policymakers should start planning construction of such reactors as a replacement for conventional nuclear power stations. Fusion reactors generate electricity by heating plasma to about 100 million degrees Celsius so that hydrogen atoms fuse together, releasing energy. The advantage of fusion reactors is that they create almost no radioactive waste. The results were published in the Fusion Engineering and Design journal.
Glasgow Caledonian University
Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager, is donating £500,000 to Glasgow Caledonian University. The gift will be made over the next decade and will be used to support more than 200 students via scholarships focused on widening access and enabling participation in “study enhancing opportunities” in the UK and overseas. Sir Alex, an honorary graduate of GCU, said that he wanted to “give something back” to his home city.
Cardiff Metropolitan University
What is said to be the world’s first “synthetic reality laboratory” has been developed at Cardiff Metropolitan University. The institution’s Perceptual Experience Lab simulates environmental and social settings for trial participants using directional sound, smell, air movement, temperature and vision. Researchers can use head and eye tracking, as well as brainwave and heart rate monitoring, to carry out experiments in areas such as computer gaming, psychology and marketing.
University of Nottingham
A chemical in the brain could potentially be harnessed to help young people with Tourette’s syndrome to overcome physical and vocal tics associated with the disorder, researchers have found. In a paper published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, academics at the University of Nottingham found that increases in the production of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) – the neurochemical responsible for dampening down the hyperactivity that causes repetitive and involuntary movements and noises – may contribute to an improvement in symptoms for the majority of people with the condition.
University of Lincoln/Leeds Beckett University
Distinguished ex-professional footballers and rugby union players are being fast-tracked up the coaching ladder due to the value placed on their playing pedigree and personality by club executives, a study has found. A survey of senior decision-makers in some of England and Wales’ top clubs, carried out by the University of Lincoln and Leeds Beckett University, revealed that board directors often preferred to hire a “great player” over a coach who did not have such an illustrious playing history, because they felt current players would be more likely to accept the direction of a veteran star as “gospel”.