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Using the UK research base to make better policy


Gareth Davies, Director-General for Business and Science in the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, and Andrew Thompson, Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, discuss how academic research can inform better policy-making.

The UK’s world-class science and research base is among our most valuable resources. Across the UK’s universities and research institutes we have experts across the disciplines. We have seen the benefit policy-makers can get from engaging with academics, and how they are working to build better links between them. As the emphasis on open policy-making in the Civil Service grows, it’s important that academics are aware of the value they will be able to bring to policy making. The barriers between the two worlds of research and government can sometimes seem daunting, but dialogue is improving and the possibilities for engagement are many.

Tackling the big issues

Academia has a huge amount to offer, particularly when the issues are new or complex. Here are just two recent examples.

When the Cabinet Office and Joint Intelligence Committee wanted a deeper understanding of the Arab Spring, they turned to arts and humanities researchers to provide it. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) helped find the expertise they needed. The council’s Lessons Learned (PDF, 653KB) project was set up following the 2004 Butler Report into the Iraq war. It served as a basis for a series of briefings to intelligence analysts.

A piece of work by Timo Behr looked at perspectives behind the response to the Arab Spring. He highlighted the need to revisit assumptions on the internal cohesion and unchanging nature of Arab regimes, and the growing force of extra-parliamentary opposition that bridged secularist and Islamist groups.

Another example is when departments were working to develop the Government’s productivity plan ahead of its publication in July 2015 One of the National Academies, the British Academy, helped by bringing policy-makers together with some of the UK's leading economists to address aspects of the 'productivity puzzle' in a roundtable event. This highlighted issues including the crucial role of women in the economy and the productivity lost due to women working in lower-paid or part-time roles.

Working with government

How do you get started in working with policy-makers inside government? For the last 4 years, Andrew Thompson has been working with the International Committee of the Red Cross including a major project on humanitarian principles. The report, Connecting with the Past, is a critical historical perspective on the fundamental principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. The AHRC supports arts and humanities researchers engagement with policy makers in a variety of ways. Its standard mode, or open call, schemes for research networks, fellowships and collaborative project grants, provide opportunities to secure funding for policy-related research. The AHRC’s flagship Engaging with Government course, now in its 5th year, brings together a group of early career researchers to learn new skills linked to policy engagement. One example of what we have been able to achieve in a particular policy field is that of human rights, where we have funded a large number of highly impactful projects. For an overview of the work we funded in this area we created the AHRC and Human Rights Research and Policy Timeline.

From the perspective of the Civil Service Gareth has found Philip Gummett’s history, Scientists in Whitehall (1980), immensely useful in getting to grips with the issues relating to government investment in science and research. The world of policy delivery has changed beyond recognition since its publication, but many of the basic challenges remain the same. The book details the complex history of institutional change at the interface between research and government, helping frame issues that were explored once again in Sir Paul Nurse’s 2015 review of the Research Councils.

Government sponsorship of formal academic research programmes has the power to drive a fundamental change in thinking. Everyone now thinks about regional policy in terms of ‘agglomeration effects’ – the economic benefits that come when people and businesses cluster together. This hasn’t always been the case. The government’s current focus on regional growth is partly the offspring of work carried out by the London School of Economics' Spatial Economics Research Centre, which was initiated by the Department for Trade and Industry in the 2000s.

Making contact

The development of new research can take time, and may not always be necessary. More often, policy makers require a synthesis of the work that is already out there.

At the start of a project you may not know exactly what its outcomes will be. But potential policy impact can be thought about at the planning stages and built into a research grant application. With funding allocation for universities now linked to demonstrable impact for their research, researchers have a bigger incentive than ever to get involved in the process of policy making.

It is helpful for researchers to be clear as to where in government their research will be most effective from a policy standpoint. That allows them to better identify potential routes of engagement that Whitehall uses, for example, internships and secondments, opportunities to undertake commissioned research or involvement in policy networks.

Convening groups of experts can also be particularly powerful. As Gareth found in his time at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, which regularly hosted seminars with academic specialists on issues including criminal justice, which, in turn, helped shape the Carter Review of prisons and probation.

Looking back

With increasingly rapid change and turnover inside the Civil Service, academic history is acquiring new importance, helping supplement the corporate memory with the study of policy from the past. It can clarify how we arrived at the situations we confront today, and provide insights from comparable historic situations.

New networks focused on history are developing fast. There was a time when government departments employed in-house historians. These have mostly gone, but different approaches are needed today in any case. The Treasury in particular has been working to establish better academic partnerships to provide a deeper evidence base. One partnership, with the Policy Institute at King’s College London, provides historically focused research and teaching on issues including the development of economic policy and the evolving role of the Treasury within Whitehall. The Contemporary History of Whitehall initiative, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), will investigate the recent history of Whitehall between 1979 and 2010.

The Research Councils

The AHRC is one of seven Research Councils – government’s major partners in funding excellent research. Our networks embrace ground-breaking current research across all the academic disciplines. A recent review of the councils stressed the importance of building richer dialogue between these networks and government. With our great convening power, we are ideally placed to broker these connections.

National Academies

Gareth’s Directorate-General in BIS part-funds the four National Academies: independent organisations whose fellows are elected in recognition of their world-leading research. The academies have a track record of major reports that have helped to take policy forward. Their location close to Whitehall allows them to host seminars tapping into deep expertise across the whole policy spectrum.

The Academy of Medical Sciences reviewed the regulation and governance of health research in 2011, and recommended a range of systemic improvements to streamline the way in which the UK initiates and delivers health research. This led to the creation of the Health Research Authority (HRA).

The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering jointly reviewed some of the scientific and engineering issues presented by fracking. They considered the geological risks, including groundwater contamination, and whether these could be effectively managed. In 2012, the Secretary of State for Energy announced that fracking could continue in the UK, acknowledging the review's role in the decision.


It is not possible to do justice in a single article to the many routes into the policy arena for those looking for appropriate applications of their research.

For instance, many universities have set up dedicated units to drive engagement with the world of policy – like the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy or the History and Policy Network.

These routes are increasing, and the incentives for researchers to engage actively and effectively with government are stronger than ever. It is up to us all to reach out and engage with policy makers.

This article originally appeared as a feature in Civil Service Quarterly 11 (June 2016).

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