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Researchers bring fresh thinking to Government policy

Dr Gregory Messenger, Fellowship holder and Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Liverpool

How do we solve the big problems our country faces?

In uncertain times, ensuring that our best researchers are actively involved with our policy makers in discussions that bring together the perspective of academia and the experience of front line government, seems essential. And the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is committed to facilitating better conversations between our universities and Whitehall.

To further this ambition the AHRC, along with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), is now funding two year fellowships for social scientists and arts and humanities researchers at any career stage to work with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to advise and influence policymakers and help address key issues.

Dr Gregory Messenger, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Liverpool, is one of the first academics to take up the fellowship.

“I am a trade specialist by training and that is something that is becoming increasingly in demand as we try and negotiate Brexit and post-Brexit, and when an advert for the fellowship came up I was immediately interested,” he says.

“I was lucky, in that I had already done a lot of relevant research and had already been in contact with people in the civil service. I had the interest and expertise.”

The AHRC and ESRC hope that fellows like Dr Messenger will bring fresh thinking, depth and breadth of expert knowledge and apply their learning to policy challenges – as well as build new capacity in the FCO and across the UK research base.

“I liked the idea of being able to work at the sharp end,” says Dr Messenger. “As a researcher, we talk about these issues, we read about them and write about them; but we are a few steps removed from where things are actually happening.

“When I talk to civil servants I’m conscious of a disconnect between what we identify as researchers, and what they see on a day-to-day basis. For us, there is always a lag as information takes time to filter back. It will be good to get ahead of that.

“I’m looking forward to getting closer to the action and being to engage with those who are supporting the work of policy-makers.”

Ultimately the scheme aims to support a programme of fellowships with the intention of bringing a major shift to the way that academics and policymakers work together.

The goal is a distinctive, transformative and long-lasting fellowship scheme that aims to set the highest standards for collaboration between academia and the FCO.

“I feel like I’ve got a lot to contribute, particularly in some of the more complex – and often overlooked or misunderstood – aspects of trade, such as when public policy interacts with industrial strategy or environmental protection,” says Dr Messenger.

“These can be quite controversial areas of policy – such as when we are talking about the fate of the steel works in south Wales. But at the moment the Government is less involved in these decisions as it will need to be post-Brexit.

“For the moment, the EU covers a lot of this. But the Government will have to make its own way soon.

“Another important area is fisheries. Again, this is an EU competence but that will change, and as a maritime nation we will need to decide how we regulate this key asset, if and how we subsidise fisheries and so on.

“Other countries outside the EU are thinking about these detailed issues and we need to catch up with them and find our own positions.”

But Dr Messenger also believes that the fellowship – and the good working relationships that he hopes to develop – will fuel further research and reflection when he returns to the University of Liverpool.

“If my time as an [FCO fellow] can be about one thing, I would like to help bridge the gap between academia and the Government,” he says.

“The Government can be good at reaching out, sometimes. But academics need to be there to meet them. We need to break down the silo mentality that can exist both within academia and the civil service.

“I’m really looking forward to a different environment and working practices.

“The communications aspects of the role in particular will be very different; I will have to engage with my colleagues in a very different way.

“I won’t have the luxury of a 20,000 word article to get my point across – and I will have to make my argument in a much more succinct way!”

The second round of the AHRC/ESRC/FCO Knowledge Exchange Fellowships Scheme will be launched at the beginning of July 2018 with a deadline for applications of the end of September 2018. As with the current round, this will offer between 2 and 4 placements for a duration of 2 years with Fellows to start at the FCO in September 2019. The Scheme provides the opportunity for each intake of Fellows to be seconded into the FCO to work alongside, advise and influence policymakers.

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