'Policymakers need to ask us the right questions'

Ministers and academics need a better dialogue to aid policy, review chair Janet Finch tells Zoe Corbyn

May 1, 2008

Understanding how academia's interactions with the Government can be enhanced has, according to Janet Finch, some parallels with the moves over the past decade to understand how interaction between academia and business can be improved.

"Maybe some similar issues are raised ... I think it is very interesting that the Secretary of State has identified it as a focus," said Professor Finch, the vice-chancellor of the University of Keele and co-chair of the Council for Science and Technology (CST).

She has been asked by John Denham, the Universities Secretary, to lead, with the council, a review of how academics' expertise can better feed into Government and inform policy. It is one of seven reviews commissioned by Mr Denham to help shape the higher education system over the next ten to 15 years.

"It is about how the interaction between academia and public policymakers in Government can be improved so that academics can feed in more regularly and more influentially ... Conversely, it is about how to ensure Government has the opportunity to draw more regularly on the expertise of academia," Professor Finch said.

"I don't know that there is any sense that something has gone particularly wrong, but there are opportunities that are probably not being realised at the moment that could be realised in the future."

Members of the review panel, who are due to deliver their final report to Mr Denham in September, have thus far agreed terms of reference with the minister and are early into the evidence-gathering stage. (CST member Sir John Beringer chairs the project group.)

The terms of reference were three-fold, Professor Finch said. Based on consultation within both academic and policy circles, the committee will review the channels through which the Government obtains academic advice; identify any tensions, challenges and successes as seen from both angles; and look at what happens in other countries to see if any lessons can be learnt.

The first task has to be mapping the different ways in which advice is obtained, the professor stressed. These include advisory committees, tenders for studies and policy advice and informal discussions with ministers and senior officials.

The review will consider what can be learnt from France and the US. Time permitting, the committee would like to develop some case studies around what works and what does not work from the range of experiences they intend to look at, Professor Finch said.

As to whether the review will examine issues around the research assessment exercise or indeed the research excellence framework being developed to replace it, Professor Finch said it would not address these specifically.

Mr Denham's announcement of the review did mention the RAE - and in January he also called for fresh thinking about how academics who offer policy advice could be properly rewarded and recognised for the work - but neither the RAE nor the REF featured in the terms of reference, Professor Finch pointed out.

"In general terms, I think it is obvious that one of the things we are going to touch on is about the rewards for academics for engaging with policymakers," she said. However, it was "not really emerging" as the major issue, she said.

Shaping up to be key points for debate are whether the necessary structures - on both the government side and the universities side - are in place to facilitate good dialogue on policy issues and whether the right questions are being asked of academics.

"The sorts of things we will be pursuing are: how are the questions asked? How does each side understand each other? Are there any channels that could make it work better and, if so, what are they? ... and possibly how the academic environment values this kind of work in a general way." Professor Finch was careful to note that the review is still at an early stage and that some avenues might turn out to be dead ends.

"I think almost certainly the picture that will emerge is that on both sides there needs to be some capacity building for this interaction to work effectively ... More academics may need to understand more about the way in which the Government operates so that they can feed in more effectively.

"Equally, I think more people within Government may have to learn how to ask the right questions that academics can actually help them with."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

DENHAM'S DESIRE FOR POLICY PEOPLE

In the speech earlier this year in which he announced seven areas for review on the future of higher education, John Denham, the Universities Secretary, said: "This Government spends £6 billion a year on research, yet ministers and officials sometimes find it hard to access academic knowledge tailored to the practical needs of public policy."

In an earlier address to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce, he said: "To my mind, scientists who produce fewer research papers but produce excellent evidence and advice in the national interest should not feel that they may disadvantage themselves, their research colleagues or their institution when research funds are distributed."

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