Informing national policy is not easy but it is a must for scholars

Academics must learn about the policymaking landscape and identify the key people to build relationships with, says Natascha Engel

February 2, 2023
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It is a curious fact that in this age of mass information, neither the UK government nor Parliament really knows where to find interesting and fresh research to inform policy decisions.

In fact, almost a decade ago, Parliament’s Liaison Committee, made up of all select committee chairs, launched an inquiry into why select committees only ever seemed to invite the same handful of academics. To help the committee, the usual experts on constitutional reform were called to give evidence. One of these was Matthew Flinders. Perhaps ironically, he and I have been battling ever since for a greater diversity of academic voices and for better access to Parliament and government for universities.

Especially at a time of polarised politics, having a wider range of views is vitally important. But parliamentarians, like academics, are time-poor. Busy ministers have to make many policy decisions every day and are heavily reliant on the advice of civil servants. Backbenchers run from committees to votes, often only getting around to reading the briefings prepared by their researchers shortly before getting up to speak in a debate.

The range of topics that a member of parliament has to be on top of is staggering. Their policy knowledge is wide but shallow. Very few have a policy specialism or an academic background, and hardly any have built long-term relationships with universities.

Whether it’s a minister, a select committee member or a backbencher on a bill committee, all MPs are short of time. Far easier, therefore, to go to the few known experts and scholars who give trusted policy advice.

The problem is that this is the opposite of thoughtful and informed policymaking and does nothing to break MPs’ reliance on their party’s line. So how can this be changed?

The UK university sector has expanded enormously over the past decades. With that has come a vast variety of excellent research and original ideas that would benefit public policy. This is the context of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and why its embrace of impact as a significant metric is so important. It is also why the emphasis on promoting public engagement and communication skills in universities is essential. But while academics’ traditional view of research as an end in itself is changing, a challenge remains as to how academic institutions can better feed their research into the policymaking bloodstream.

Policymaking is complex, and decision-makers are constantly changing. The average minister stays in post no longer than 18 months. General elections and changes of prime minster appear to be happening more frequently now, too. The rapid political churn makes it hard for the research community to keep up with who is where.

Civil servants tend to stay in place longer – but not much. Some have the time to develop policy specialisms and are more in touch with academic institutions, but not systematically. There have been some improvements and more outreach, particularly with academic sabbaticals and placements in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, but there is a very long way to go.

The paradox is that policymakers are hungry for interesting and original research. They want a diversity of views. They enjoy ideas and policies being challenged. Without it, when bad policy translates into bad legislation, people suffer – which is exactly what most MPs go into politics to do something about.

But to have impact, researchers and universities need first to decide what policy area their research can inform and then design a plan to make it happen.

The political and policy interests that any government will have to deal with won’t change over the coming years: climate change, energy and food security, the future of the health service, education, levelling up and how to get infrastructure built all need long-term solutions. That is the lens through which research needs to be seen – with a constant reminder that it can have a real and lasting effect on the lives of others.

Academics must learn about the policymaking landscape – not just in Westminster but also in Holyrood, the Senedd and Stormont, as well as in the mayoralties and local councils. And they must put relationship-building with policymakers into research and dissemination plans.

None of this is easy. Finding the right people to build those relationships with needs inside knowledge of policy and politics. And knowing how to write a select committee submission is a skill that has to be learned. But as a first step, it is essential to understand that seeking policy impact is essential for academics, rather than just a bonus if the stars somehow align and a policymaker happens to read their paper.

Parliamentarians need ongoing relationships with academics. Without that, UK policy decisions will be the poorer and opportunities will be lost.

Natascha Engel is CEO of policy and research institute Palace Yard. She was a member of parliament from 2005 to 2017, chair of the Backbench Business Select Committee and deputy speaker of the House of Commons.


Print headline: For academia and policymakers, relationships are key to impact

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Reader's comments (1)

If policymakers are looking for "interesting and original research", perhaps they should consider properly funding some ...