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About this resource

Who is this resource for
and why engage?

Who’s this resource for?

This resource is aimed at early to mid career post PhD researchers with expertise in engineering and science although the advice is equally applicable to any academic, from other disciplines or at any stage in their career, who may want to become more policy aware.  It’s been designed to introduce academics to the policy development process and help you think about the wide range of ways your expertise and knowledge could help shape and inform public policy.  This is a joint project with the Centre for Science and Policy and Churchill College.

There’s no denying that working effectively with policy makers can be a challenge but this resource aims to demystify the complex world of policy making and provide practical suggestions for how to engage with a range of policy makers both within and external to the UK parliament.  Your expertise could help identify a new way of approaching a policy question, challenge current thinking on a particular issue or help plug a critical evidence gap.  Whether you want guidance on engaging with an MP, submitting written evidence to a Select Committee or just simply wanting to know the difference between UK parliament and government then this resource is for you.    

The importance of scientific and engineering expertise

Scientific and engineering expertise is used by policy makers in a variety of ways from informing policy making to scrutinising legislation, laws and procedures – and ultimately can hold policy actors to account.  The use of scientific advice in the UK government has recently become more prominent in policy discourse for example most government departments now have a Chief Scientific Adviser appointed whose role is to provide scientific advice to their department which can help inform the development of policy.  There has also been a raft of measures to integrate evidence into the policy making process with more recent debates focussing on research engagement to facilitate academic evidence-informed decision making.  For example UK government departments now release details outlining their Areas of Research Interest, (ARIs), with one of the aims being to ‘align scientific and research evidence from academia with policy development and decision making’. [1]    

Why engage with policy?

Before you set off on a particular pathway ask yourself what are your own motives for wanting to engage with policy and what impacts, if any, are you hoping to achieve?  This could increase the likelihood of achieving the desired outcome. You may be motivated by driving improvement – to see the evidence from your studies contribute actively to policy and potential practice.  Or it may be your end goal is to build awareness about your research to a relevant policy audience and stimulate debate.  The UK Research Excellence Framework, also provides a financial incentive for universities to demonstrate the impact of their findings.  

Positioning – honest broker or issue advocate?

You may also want to think about how you are positioning yourself?  How far should you go to be influential?  Is your evidence being used to add legitimacy to a policy position that you don’t feel comfortable with?  Are you an honest broker or an issue advocate? A honest broker may simply disseminate their research neutrally, clearly and in a timely fashion so acting as a ‘honest broker’ of their evidence.  An ‘issue advocate’ is more likely to recommend a specific policy option or describe the implications for policy based on their research. [2]  In reality the boundary between these two options can be blurred but it’s useful to think about this when reflecting on accessibility and how you might go about building trust with a policy maker. 

Who are the policy makers?

A policy maker, or policy actor, is a broad term that covers different people responsible for formulating or amending policy.  At a national level in the UK this includes Ministers and their advisers, MPs, Peers, civil servants, (bureaucrats that support policy making), officially appointed Chief Scientific Advisors, Parliamentary Committee members... the list goes on.  Finding how who has the power to make a difference will make your engagement more effective.  This resource will help you indentify and find the key players - be they politicians, civil servants or knowledge brokers such as NGOs and thinktanks.   Mapping out the relevant stakeholders is part of understanding the policy landscape with which you want to engage with.  And along with knowing who you want to engage with is also planning when and how you might want to do it.  Timing can be critical in maximising your impact.

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What is policy and how is it made?

There is no single agreed definition of what policy is but it can generally be thought of as a statement of intent made by a government body, often with the involvement of non-governmental individuals and organisations that describes a problem and broadly outlines how the problem will be addressed. [3]  You may have heard of something called the policy development cycle – taken from HM Treasury’s Green Book guidance which sets out a linear rational model with distinct stages.  The reality though is that policy making is inherently messy – it often arises out of mixture of government departmental advice to Ministers, political advice from Ministers special advisors, top-down direction from Cabinet, academic evidence, pressure from lobbyists and occasionally in response to direct public pressures.  An appreciation of this complexity and that policy making will probably occur at different timescales to yours, can help you be proactive and spot the opportunities to know when to engage.  Demonstrating to policy makers that you have some understanding of their world – different professional cultures, different styles of language, potentially different priorities - can help bridge the gap between academia and policy and break down the barriers to engagement and build constructive relationships.

Policy is created through a complex interaction of ministerial priorities, public attitudes, media, civil service capacity and other factors – in addition to evidence and expertise.

Institute for Government, How Government can work with academia. [4]

In short policy making does not take place in a vacuum.  Some policy decisions may appear completely illogical and at odds with credible evidence but the desire to generate headlines or be seen to be acting can sometimes lead to what might be considered impulsive announcements.  Scientific and engineering evidence is only part of the picture that a policy maker might consider.  The Civil Service Policy Skills and Knowledge Framework advocates that successful policy is, after all, the interplay of three factors - politics, evidence and delivery. [5] 

Evidence-based or evidence-informed policy making?

You may also have heard of the term ‘evidence-based policy making’ but wondered what this means or questioned whether it’s even a helpful thing to aspire to?  Advocates of ‘evidence-based policy making’ are often talking about scientific evidence which has been produced in a particular way with randomised control trials being at the top of a methodological hierarchy.  Instead what might be considered a more pragmatic phrase, ‘evidence-informed policy’, also acknowledges that scientific evidence alone does not drive policy but policy making is the interplay of a range of considerations. 

Ultimately though policy makers aren’t necessarily interested in philosophical questions such as what constitutes evidence, what evidence based policy making is or even how robust the evidence may be.  Policy makers are more likely to care about research evidence insofar as it helps them to make informed decisions. [6]  So how can you help them be informed?  Become more policy aware, immerse yourself in relevant political debate, engage with those who can help you foresee where it might be best to input and ensure your evidence is accessible to the practical needs of policy making.  Acquiring policy nous won’t happen over-night but gaining an understanding and respect of various policy actors, their beliefs and their institutional constraints will also help you feel more empowered to engage.

Windows of opportunity

Gaining knowledge of the complex world of policy making can be challenging but time spent observing relevant political discourse, understanding how policy is made and building up relationships with key players can also help you exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ to impact on policy change and be ready to capitalise on them quickly.  Different points in time may present different moments to influence – routine, infrequent or unexpected events can open or close ‘windows of opportunity’ for policy change.  For example elections, natural disasters, economic crisis, shifts in societal attitudes or opinion, a change in government or Minister could provide an ideal opportunity for you to input your expertise.  In short if you are able to exploit a time when policy makers have the opportunity to adopt what you are proposing then the greater your impact will be. [7]

So what next...how can I contribute and engage?

The gap between academics and policy makers may seem unbridgeable at times, with different incentives and working styles making it hard to collaborate effectively but at the very least having an understanding of how policy operates in practice and identifying a range of potential pathways to follow will provide you with the first steps to achieving policy engagement and potential impact.  Personal qualities such as resilience and humility can also be just as important as being policy savvy.  Being pragmatic and managing your own expectations about the likely impact of your engagement on policy will also help you stay focussed on what you are trying to achieve.   As you’ve probably realised by now - academics can contribute to policy making in many different ways.  There is no single approach or one size fits all model but indentifying why and what you want to achieve which will help you decide which pathway you’d like to pursue. 

Keep reading for new content

This resource is a pilot project which will be organised into different but complementary sections which can be read as stand-alone sections or read as a complete set. New sections and downloadable content will be added as the project progresses.

We welcome feedback: please email office@bennettinstitute.cam.ac.uk titling your message 'Policy Resources' for more information.

>>> next: Engaging with UK Parliament


References on this page:

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/areas-of-research-interest
[2] Oliver, K. & Cairney, P. (2019). The dos and don’ts of influencing policy: A systematic review of advice to academics. Palgrave Communications, 5(21)
[3] Evans MC, Cvitanovic C (2018) An introduction to achieving policy impact for early career researchers. Palgrave Communications 4(1):88. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-018-0144-2
[4]  Sasse T and Haddon C (2018) How Government can Work with Academia, Institute for Government
[5] Policy Profession Support Unit, (2013) Policy Skills and Knowledge Framework available at http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/networks/policy-profession/skills-framework
[6] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/02/scientists-policy-governments-science
[7] Rose, D.C., (2017) Environmental Science and Polic, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2017.07.013
[6] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/02/scientists-policy-governments-science
[7] Rose, D.C., Environmental Science and Policy (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2017.07.013


Resource supported by

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