As academics face increased pressure to prove the impact that their research is having on the wider world, universities are considering how they can communicate more effectively with policymakers.
There are fundamental problems that confront the relationship between academics and politicians. The rules, incentives and institutional architectures that distinguish the academic field are different from those of the policy landscape.
Policymakers often have relatively tight timeframes when compared to academics: they frequently want short, clearly written synopses of research that can throw light on their policy problems.
In contrast, academics are driven by the need to secure grants and get published in high quality journals.Their research may take five years or more – the length of a parliament. Having been trained to think carefully and at length about the problems they confront, they find responding to the more immediate demands of policymakers a challenge. How can these difficulties be overcome?
Co-production: researchers and policymakers work together on research and policy aims
Politicians could better engage with academics at the point when they start to think about manifestos; embedding academic knowledge into the policy process from the beginning.
In order to develop such agendas, universities need to foster new channels of engagement with policymakers. Policymakers could have an increasing presence on our campuses to develop the questions that are key to their policy concerns.
I recently hosted a visit by a senior scientific officer from Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC), where he met researchers developing new gas storage materials for combating climate change. He gained direct access to our latest research, while our researchers gleaned insights into the policy making processes at DECC.
Other schemes exist to bring policymakers to universities. Philip Rutnam, permanent secretary for transport is giving a public lecture on 11 December, at Bath, as well as being involved in a round table discussion with some of our leading transport experts. But, these schemes are few and far between and the gulf between the frequency of policymaker campus visits, and the wealth of possibilities this could unleash, remains.
Get more academics in front of policymakers
The onus lies not just with policymakers visiting academic institutions. There is also the opportunity to get more academics directly in front of policymakers, be it through presenting to all-party groups, being involved in calls for evidence, and presenting to select committees. However, the processes for being invited to present are far from transparent, limiting the opportunity for fair academic representation.
Think tanks can help bridge the gap
Communicating with policy think tanks is also beneficial – this is something we’ve tried to do here at Bath with the appointment of our new advisory board that brings policymakers, think tanks and academics together. We hope that university policy institutes can act as a bridge, developing links between the worlds of academia and policy.
There are occasions when it takes the policy community time to take in the implications of research.
My own work, with Phillip Brown, on the future of graduate job opportunities and earnings was based on a study of the implications of the emerging global labour market for many graduate jobs. It was not an optimistic picture we were painting; British graduates now have to face competition from their counterparts across the globe who can often work at a fraction of the price of our graduates.
Younger policy wonks from across the political spectrum quickly expressed interest but it took some time before senior policymakers took note. In part, this may have been because the research challenged official estimates of the returns to graduates. It’s not, however, the role of academics to serve existing policy agendas, important as they might be. It may take time or a change of government for such research to surface in policy agendas: it is a question of dialogue and maintaininggood relationships.
Top tips for academics
• Be clear about what your research focus and expertise is
• Be consistent in your research output channels
• Proactively identify key policymakers you want to engage with and target them direct at opportune times
• Invite policymakers to your university to give lectures, tour new facilities, meet academics working on research that is relevant to them
• Invite policymakes to be part of your advisory board
• Have an active media presence to communicate the quality of your policy research