15 April 2019

Universities, research councils and funding councils must increase their support if we are to avoid missing out on the benefits of academic expertise for policy making, writes Tom Sasse.

Government currently allocates £6.5 billion a year to bodies that fund academic research. The UK has 30 of the top 200 universities in the world and is home to leading academics in virtually all disciplines. Many of those academics offer knowledge, expertise and research that can help to inform, design, test and scrutinise government policy. Indeed, this is a crucial part of academia’s wider value to society. Yet many academics struggle to contribute to policy making – in part because they lack support from their institutions. This reduces their ability to use their expertise to improve policy decisions.

Academics can help government make better policy

When academics do influence policy, it can make a real difference to peoples’ lives. For example, one academic’s work on the benefits of early interventions by ‘health visitors’ – trained nurses who visit people at home – lead to the Coalition Government investing in 4,200 new posts. A panel of 25 academics helps government to conduct randomised control trials on new policies – from enabling customers to switch energy provider to using befriending services to improve end of life care – to test that they work before they are rolled out. And historians’ knowledge of past financial crises played a crucial role in the way that the Treasury responded to the 2008 crash. 

In fact, a huge number of major policy changes have also been shaped by academics, including the auto-enrolment of pensions, the introduction of the National Minimum Wage, and a string of recent changes to the migration system.

But currently only a small minority of academics have an influence

Yet many academics still struggle to get to grips with policy making. They find it hard to know who to approach and how; funding opportunities to establish connections or undertake policy-focused research appear limited; and it is difficult to find time for engaging with policy makers alongside research, teaching and other pressures.

The result is that policy influence, especially in central government, remains the preserve of a small group of ‘usual suspects’. Valuable expertise is wasted – and policy is poorer as a result. A lack of diversity is also a problem, with government tending to work with academics who are disproportionately old, white, male and London-based. Between 1997 and 2012, 85% of independent policy advisers appointed to UK government policy reviews were male, and 98% were white. A recent study found 74% of academics giving evidence to select committees were male and over 60% came from London or the south of England. The result is that policy fails to draw on a representative range of expertise.

Government departments and parliamentarians are partly responsible for this, and must improve the way they involve academics in policy formation, as an IfG report published last year argued. But a lack of support from academic institutions is also responsible for wasting the potential benefits of research. Our new report, published today, shows that universities, research councils and funding councils also have a key role in improving and widening policy engagement.

Academia must support more academics to work with policy makers

First, academia must properly fund policy engagement. There is currently limited dedicated funding available to support activities such as secondments, evidence synthesis and training. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) gives universities an incentive to have a small number of high-impact academics, but not to build wider capacity.

Second, academia must make the ‘high-impact career’ an attractive career path. Policy engagement is time-consuming, yet academics are not given time out of busy 40:40:20 schedules of research, teaching and administration to do it. Taking time away from focusing on writing peer-reviewed journal articles to take up a secondment is considered ‘career suicide’ – even though this type of interchange is crucial to improving connections.

Third, academia must improve its understanding of how to get policy makers to use evidence. A major review found that basic research – for instance, on the value of secondments or co-producing research – was limited. This means that government is spending billions funding research to generate new knowledge with little understanding of how to ensure that the knowledge created has maximum impact.

UKRI must lead the way on improving engagement

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the new funding agency created in April 2018, has a key role to play in all of this. With oversight of the research and funding councils, it has convening power to transform how academics from all disciplines, backgrounds and areas of the country contribute to the shaping of government policy. It aims to be a ‘single voice to enable better connectivity to policy makers’.

Yet so far, it has said little on the subject. This may be down to sensitivity over a largely separate issue: since its creation, UKRI has faced tough questions about whether its funding power, organisational structure and staffing threatens academic autonomy over research decisions. These are legitimate concerns and UKRI needs to ensure it addresses them. Yet this debate should not be an obstacle to UKRI and others taking steps to improve policy engagement.

While there is clear room for improvement, academia’s strong relationship with another sector offer reasons for encouragement. Twenty years ago, links between academia and business were weak and little value was created through collaborations. But following a sustained period of investment, there are now 150 business schools and university – business collaboration is ‘robust, healthy and growing’. Academia must now deliver a similar change in the relationship between universities and policy makers. If it fails to do so, many academics will continue to struggle to contribute to policy making and we will all miss out on the potential benefits.