17 October 2017

As new plans for measuring ‘knowledge exchange’ between academia and business are announced, Tom Sasse argues the Government should also focus on how civil servants make use of academics.

Failure to use the best research, evidence and expertise to inform policy making costs money and reduces the effectiveness of government. Over the past decade, changes to academic funding and a range of new initiatives have sought to improve the interchange between academia and policy, but more needs to be done.

Government is ignoring the connection between academia and policymaking

Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, last week announced plans to measure how well universities work with business to collaborate on research and development. The move is the latest in a series of major reforms to the Higher Education landscape. In July, he launched UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a powerful new strategic body that brings together the research and funding councils. And in the 2016 Autumn Statement, the Government announced a £4.7 billion Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, ‘the largest increase in public R&D for 40 years’.

Taken together, these reforms show government appetite for increasing academia’s impact and reach. However, while the proposals develop the Government’s vision for academic–commercial collaboration – an area of focus for Industrial Strategy – they largely ignore the crucial connection between academia and government itself.

Improving government use of academic research

On the supply side universities, learned societies and research councils are engaged in wide-ranging initiatives to increase the public policy impact of research. But, as previous IfG research shows, demand-side problems are more significant – crucially, the absence of adequate incentives.

Government took steps to address this in the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan, committing to ‘open policymaking’: becoming more porous to academic thinking, drawing on wider sources and publishing the evidence base for policies.

But progress appears to be slow. The most recent update in 2014 said strong demonstration of the use of evidence by departments was ‘the exception rather than the rule’. Last year, an assessment of evidence transparency found that policies were often not clearly evidenced and academic work not referenced. Whilst it is difficult to get a complete picture of departmental activity, there is room for improvement.

Civil servants value academic knowledge and expertise at least as much evidence. But finding and accessing the right academic, quickly, remains a challenge. Departments tell us the ‘transaction cost’ remains too high.

There are a range of initiatives aiming to tackle this.

The What Works Centres provide practical options to policymakers by synthesising evidence. Various departments are encouraging academics into government secondments, looking at how to create networks of academics that can respond rapidly to policy problems, and using digital tools, such as Policy Labs, to encourage engagement.

But these initiatives are not shared across departments as well as they could be, which reduces their effectiveness on policy. They need even stronger central coordination. That is why the Institute for Government, in a new project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is looking at what is working and how to scale it.

As the Government develops an ambitious strategy for research and innovation it should lead by example, by using academia better when making policy.