Published on 6 June 2023
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Jubilation, trepidation, exasperation

Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson MBE, Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University and affiliated researcher at the Bennett Institute, explains how academics can best work with policymakers.

Academics lead busy lives, just as policymakers do. When an email arrives from a civil servant requesting a meeting to discuss a topic of mutual interest there can be a range of reactions.

  • Jubilation: I am the chosen one! My research is USEFUL. This feels good.  I’m going to say YES and cancel whatever I have in my diary because the government needs me.
  • Trepidation: why have they contacted me? Why didn’t they contact my boss/Prof x who wrote *that* paper on this topic/someone who has done policy engagement before?
  • Exasperation: This is in addition to my already busy research and teaching workload and I’ve been saying for years that this is an important issue but nobody cared.

Working with policymakers can be of great benefit to academics, including bringing insights and contacts that will help their research. Although there can be barriers – particularly relating to time.

A case study from Classics

I research the learning and teaching of classical subjects (Latin, Ancient Greek, Classical Civilisation and Ancient History). While at the University of Oxford, I worked with the Department for Education for 10 months, supported by a research and public policy partnership, at zero cost to policy colleagues.

This partnership included sharing my initial and interim findings of the Classics in Communities project, on the impact of studying Latin (and to a lesser extent Greek) on young children’s English literacy, global awareness and critical skills. Language learning was an area of policy interest for the Department for Education, given rapid declines in recent years, and the requirement of language study (ancient or modern) on the English Baccalaureate.

The partnership contributed to two successes: a £4m investment in the Latin Excellence programme, to widen access to the study of Latin and classical studies in state-maintained schools, and a report on the teaching of ancient languages in primary schools in England.

This report, commissioned by the Department for Education, was the first report into Classics Education published by the government for 34 years. Our partnership has continued with funding from the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account; with further outputs planned. In addition to these major outcomes, the two-way exchange of knowledge and methodologies with the Department’s analysts and social researchers has resulted in professional learning on both sides.

Following this initial partnership, I arranged two events for policy partners to meet academic colleagues from a range of disciplinary backgrounds who could contribute research evidence to current areas of policy interest. These free events included sessions on how policymakers use evidence, how the policy cycle works and top tips for researchers who want to engage policymakers in dialogue about their research. One of these events was co-hosted with the British Academy’s Early Career Researcher Network and Higher Education Policy team (I hold a British Academy Innovation Fellowship 2022-2024).

It is clear that scholars in the Arts and Humanities have fresh and interesting perspectives to share with policy colleagues, and this event focussed on equipping early career colleagues with the knowledge and skills necessary to begin their engagement journey.

So why should you bother?

Senior staff such as professors are able to choose how much policy engagement they do, but their workload models are unlikely to include policy engagement as very few universities officially count policy engagement as part of academic labour. Researchers do, however, need to demonstrate their impact outside academia. This can benefit them for a) promotion (universities such as Bristol, Manchester, the Open University and UCL lead the way in recognising policy engagement for academic progression) and b) university REF impact case studies.

Early and mid-career researchers constitute the majority of UK academia so are policymakers’ best bet for specialist input. But they are also time poor and likely to be under pressure to publish academic research to get promoted.

In some universities, over 40 per cent of teaching is done by staff on fixed term contracts. These ‘precariously employed’ staff have no prospect of promotion within the institution and therefore little incentive to ‘go the extra mile’ or take on additional responsibilities.

Engaging with policy colleagues can also help academics demonstrate the impact of their work. For example, policy partners can write a letter of support for research funding applications (especially useful if the proposed research addresses areas of policy interest), a written testimony substantiating the impact of their partnership, and/or to speak at university events which demystify the policymaking process for researchers. Also, those relationships that you can make as an early or mid-career researcher can remain a source of inspiration and support particularly as policy colleagues work their way up their organisations.

The support is there

It may feel like you are going it alone when you start to think about policy engagement. But there is often internal university funding available to work with government on areas of policy priority. If your line manager supports you to share your research with policy stakeholders, grab your chance as you may not be so supported in the future. If you don’t speak up, then someone else will and their research may not be as relevant as yours. It may open doors to research ideas, new opportunities, and/or professional development, that you never imagined.

A number of universities and organisations such as the Centre for Science and Policy at Cambridge University and the Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (CAPE) project offer Policy Fellowship Programmes, workshops and internships which allow academics to work closely with policy colleagues for an extended period.

The British Academy awards over £2.4 million in their researcher-led Innovation Fellowships to support solutions-focused knowledge exchange.

How to do it

How can researchers better work with policymakers work to create a mutually beneficial and supportive relationship? I would suggest the following five actions.

1. Spend some time understanding how government works will pay off. There are resources available on the Bennett Institute’s website that can start you off.

2. Check the register of All-Party Parliamentary Groups to find the appropriate contacts and opportunities for you to contribute oral and written evidence to inquiries.

3. Respond to Government open consultations.

4. Use the communications channels that are the most appropriate for reaching your audience – from social media and blogs, to press releases, meeting, direct emails, policy briefs and reports.

5. If sharing a report, include an executive summary and three main messages that get straight to the point. Keep in mind: who is your audience? And, why would they be interested in engaging with your work? Bullet points are better than paragraphs of prose. Never, ever, submit an academic paper. It sends the message that your time is more valuable than policy colleagues’. No one will read beyond the abstract.

Adjust your approach and exasperation could become jubilation!

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Prof Arlene Holmes-Henderson

Affiliated Researcher

Arlene Holmes-Henderson MBE is Professor of Classics Education and Public Policy at Durham University where she holds a British Academy Innovation Fellowship (2022-2024). She investigates the influence of speech education...

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