Mandarins, lend us your ears

An AHRC-ESRC scheme will give scholars the chance to work in the heart of government. Zoe Corbyn reports

August 20, 2009

Researchers in the arts, humanities and social sciences often complain that they do not have the ear of policymakers in the way their peers do. But a scheme offering academics in these disciplines the chance to gain hands-on experience in government departments aims to change that.

The pilot, known as the Public Policy Fellowship Scheme, has been launched by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council. It is the first time AHRC researchers have had access to such a scheme, which is an extension of an established programme offered to ESRC researchers.

The awards will give successful applicants the chance to spend up to a year embedded in a government department or public body, undertaking research relevant to policy and helping knowledge exchange.

Initial details were announced last month, and the AHRC said it has been bombarded with inquiries.

In its initial phase, about ten places will be offered by the AHRC and a slightly larger number by the ESRC, in addition to the latter's existing programme.

Jonathan Breckon, director of policy and public affairs at the AHRC, said that if the evaluation proves successful, it could be rolled out on a much larger scale.

The pilot is in response to growing recognition of the gulf between academic research and the Government's policymaking, highlighted by a number of recent reports, including the British Academy's Punching Our Weight: the humanities and social sciences in public policymaking.

The Academy's report says: "It is essential that public policymaking is informed by high-quality research, in order to support the effectiveness of decision-making. But the full value of humanities and social science research has yet to be realised."

Although policymakers are not exploiting all that researchers in these fields have to offer, academics are also "often unaware of opportunities and approaches to feed their findings into local, regional, national or international policy debates", the report concludes.

The scheme is designed to improve matters on both fronts, Mr Breckon said.

"It is responding to the demand from people in the arts and humanities who know their stuff is relevant to policy, but can't get a foot in the door," he explained.

"How do you get access? What better than actually having an office in the department?"

The programme is aimed at mid-career researchers. Ethicists, historians and those studying human-rights law are expected to benefit. It has no official closing date, but the fellowships - which will normally be between three and six months but can last up to a year - are expected to start in April 2010.

No guarantees

One academic who has recently returned from a nine-month stint in the Treasury on an ESRC fellowship is Philip Cowley, professor at the University of Nottingham's School of Politics and International Relations.

He strongly recommended the scheme, but encouraged scholars to view placements as a way to "develop skills" rather than a "guarantee" that their output would suddenly be adopted.

"It certainly improves your chances of being taken seriously, but thinking you are going to go into a department and convince the Secretary of State that maybe capitalism isn't the best way to proceed would be naive," he said.

"One of the things that working in the Government shows you is that the chance of making a difference is smaller than you might think, simply because it is such a huge machine."

Professor Cowley said the fellowships allowed scholars to better understand the policy process, see where their work could fit and learn the language and style in which they must communicate.

"This is where people in the Government say academics fall down," he added.

The AHRC is in discussions with a range of departments, agencies and advisory bodies that might take part. The organisations are expected to provide half of the cash to fund academics' time for the duration of the fellowships, with the rest coming from the research councils.

Academics should apply directly to the councils, with details of the specific opportunities on offer to be released shortly. Fellowships can be either full- or part-time, and the councils are also keen to extend the scheme to the charity sector and think-tanks.

The idea is to promote two-way exchanges, with officials also being encouraged to spend time working on university research projects.

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