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Engaging with policy makers – why should this matter to academics?

How can academics engage with policy makers?  Sarah Foster, Research Associate at the Bennett Institute, sets out why the need for rigorous and timely evidence to design and deliver policies has never been more important.

Explore our policy resources for academics


The importance of scientific expertise

As the recent UK election campaign has demonstrated the need for independent, impartial evidence and analysis has never been so necessary particularly when trust in politicians is at an all-time low[1].  Some might deny it but policy makers need scientific evidence.  It is an important component of policy – it can help inform and shape it.  Science can also help reduce risk around policy decisions.  Policy makers use evidence in different ways depending on the context.  Government tends to focus more on the details of policy design and implementation offering an academic the opportunity to get involved at the early stages of policy development whereas Parliament’s focus is more on oversight and scrutiny.  In short scientific expertise can hold policy makers to account.

There are also significant long term drivers that will affect the demand for science and engineering expertise and the need for robust evidence to inform mainstream policy thinking.  We are living at a time of unprecedented global challenges.  As the Government Office for Science’s recent review of Government Science Capability states long-term trends such as global warming, demographic and technological changes including the big data revolution and new genetic technologies are transforming the context in with Government works. 

 The Government’s Areas for Research Interest documents already illustrate a number of big unanswered research questions where there is a need for scientific expertise beyond Whitehall to feed into policy delivery including cross cutting themes like behavioural science, security and the environment.  And in the short term ‘policy makers need to have direct access to the best scientific evidence and advice in order to ensure that robust decisions are made’[2].  This is particularly pertinent in order to respond effectively to emergencies and crises. 

The research-policy ‘gap’

There has been a raft of measures to integrate academic evidence into the policy making process but recent research suggests that Government often struggles to draw on academia effectively in forming policy and that academic research is ‘not cutting through[3]’.  This can reduce officials’ ability to advise Ministers on the basis of the best available evidence.  Partly this could be because scientific evidence is only part of the jigsaw that a policy maker might consider.  Policy is more likely to be formed based on the interplay of three factors - politics, evidence and delivery[4].  Also the research-policy ‘gap’ has been the subject of much commentary - whereby different incentives and working styles have been cited as making it hard for academics to engage and collaborate effectively with policy makers.  

The Bennett Institute, in partnership with the Centre for Science and Policy and Churchill College has just produced a new pilot Policy Resources section on the Bennett Institute website to help bridge the gap between academia and policy.  These new Policy Resources set out the different ways scientific academics can engage with the complex world of policy making be that via more established routes such as providing evidence to a Select Committee or via a more recent initiative by responding to a UK Government Department’s Areas of Research Interest document.  Above all building collaborative relationships based on mutual trust and respect and ensuring your evidence resonates with your audience is essential for effective policy engagement.   

Find out more about our Policy Resources here.


References on this page:

[1] https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/trust-politicians-falls-sending-them-spiralling-back-bottom-ipsos-mori-veracity-index
[2] Government Office for Science (November 2019) Realising our ambition through science - A review of Government Science.
[3] Kenny, C., Rose, D., Hobbs, A., Tyler, C. & Blackstock, J. (2017) The Role of Research in the UK Parliament Volume One.
[4] Policy Profession Support Unit, (2013) Policy Skills and Knowledge Framework available at http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/networks/policy-profession/skills-framework