The Bennett Institute caught up with previous Bennett Prospect Public Policy Prize winners, Dr Vageesh Jain (2019/20) (VJ) and Dr Eric Lybeck (2018/19) (EL) to hear their advice for entering and what they are doing now.
What inspired you to enter the Bennett Prospect Prize?
VJ: The chance to really think through a complex problem and put forward a proposal that could influence the narrative and discussion at a high level.
EL: I came across a link shared by Professor Andy Westwood from the University of Manchester with whom I’d discussed the issues surrounding the topic area in the past. It was a pressing topic, but I had not seen many academic responses to the question of how different areas deemed ‘left behind’ could catch up. I had dealt with these issues in the past, in earnest since 2016 and the Brexit and Trump elections, which not many academics had seen coming. I had been meaning to write an essay reflecting on my experiences with a project I left when I changed institutions from the University of Exeter to the University of Manchester and the competition was the perfect excuse to put pen to paper, so to speak.
What are your three tips for approaching and answering the essay question?
VJ: 1. Make sure the key messages are relatively simple to understand and easy to follow. 2. Contextualise your points with evidence and examples where possible. 3. Try to preempt any potentially important counterarguments to your proposal e.g. opportunity costs/trade-offs/feasibility/affordability.
EL: I wanted to ensure the core message and argument was crystal clear, since in the past I erred on the side of too much theory or analysis. I found a historical anecdote was a good way into the topic, by setting the stage. And, I made sure there were three clear actions I could add to an executive summary.
How did you find the process of answering the question?
VJ: It was initially challenging to rapidly assimilate knowledge on a complex policy issue, organise my thoughts and try to communicate them clearly and persuasively. The more time and energy I spent on the essay the easier it became, and in the end it was a great learning experience for me. As a process it was definitely beneficial to my current work in public health where I regularly have to conduct rapid research, write reports and proposals, communicate effectively and influence others around me.
EL: At first, I was not certain this was what I should be doing with my ‘research’ time as I had just joined a new job. I think universities need to provide is with much more formal time and space for ‘impact’ related work. But, I pressed on regardless as I felt I could use the work somewhere even if I did not win the prize – which I was not expected to be shortlisted for! In the time since, I have found myself much more confident in writing for public audiences, including the media and working with policymakers, so I would say, absolutely it has changed the way I interact in and beyond the academy.
Has winning the prize supported you in your ongoing career?
VJ: Winning the prize was a great achievement for me and it continues to aid me in my career in public health.
EL: I have found the prize has been amazing in opening doors with non-academic partners and academic partners as well. I have since discussed the project and ways of moving it forward with many government and third-sector organisations in Greater Manchester and beyond.
What would you say to early career researchers and policy professional considering entering the prize?
VJ: For those interested in public policy it is a great opportunity to develop your knowledge and skills. You'll learn a lot in the process and it's a fantastic opportunity.
EL: Definitely give it your best shot. There’s nothing to lose and so much to gain from the experience.
Enter this year’s Bennett Prospect Prize 2020/21 question: “Is it possible to govern well in the age of populism?”