Long-overdue policy points

John Beddington welcomes Hefce's plans to recognise and reward academic work that informs policymaking in the REF

October 22, 2009

The role of the Chief Scientific Adviser has a requirement to ensure that the UK Government has access to, and uses, the best science and engineering advice. Often the best advice comes from academia, and we are fortunate in the UK to have world-class universities to draw on. It is critically important that engagement between government and academia is strong and sustainable, which is why I support efforts to recognise and reward the contribution made by excellent research to government policymaking.

In September, the Higher Education Funding Council for England published its plans for a new research excellence framework, which will replace the research assessment exercise and be put into practice in 2013. A key departure is assessment of research impact in the world beyond academia. I welcome Hefce's plans explicitly to recognise work that leads to "better-informed public policymaking or improved services". This development gives due recognition to the vital work that academics do to contribute research insights to public policy.

Last year, the Council for Science and Technology (CST), which I co-chair, produced a report on how academia and government work together. The council found many examples of outstanding engagement, which ranged from informal discussions to formal advisory roles and commissioned research. Such a diverse array of interaction helps ensure that policies are informed by robust evidence. However, the report argued, there were too many missed opportunities and more needed to be done to strengthen engagement.

The CST found that there were significant barriers keeping research and policy apart. Ignorance among academics and policymakers about how the other side functions was one hurdle. But there were also structural inhibitors to engagement. Too many academics felt that their work on policy was not rewarded within academia. Too many felt that the drive to "publish or perish" reduced incentives to spend time translating research-based findings for policy audiences. There was frustration when work with policy did not lead to publishable outputs, even though there are good reasons why work that is relevant to policy and based on excellent research does not itself lead to the production of new knowledge.

The CST report recommended that the REF address this perceived barrier to policy engagement. We suggested that it should be possible to assess research in terms both of its academic quality and its impact on policymaking. I was therefore pleased to see Hefce's proposals for the REF to take into account the outstanding work done by UK universities to contribute research insights to public policy. Universities have always played a vital role in informing and challenging government. It is right that this work is recognised and rewarded.

Universities in the UK are justly proud of their independence from government. As Chief Scientific Adviser, I know well the value of academic autonomy, and it is this critical distance that makes academic advice indispensable to governments. I am clear that the role of academic advice is to promote sound evidence, to challenge assumptions and subject claims to critical scrutiny. In a world where governments confront a vast array of complex challenges and opportunities, the quality of evidence on which they can draw for making policy is vital to success. The litany of key issues requiring expert advice is both familiar and evolving - climate change, pandemic flu, supporting a thriving economy - but beyond these, the routine work of government depends on contributions and challenges from external expertise. It is essential that the Government gets the best advice on pressing issues of the day, but it is also important to promote a wider culture in which engagement between academia and government is the norm in policy development and delivery.

I am eager to see contributions to policy encouraged from academics in all disciplines and at all stages of their career. I am therefore delighted that Hefce is seeking to recognise the outstanding contribution that academia makes to public life through translating research into effective evidence to inform policy and wider public debate.

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