07498 560 288 mark@showrunnercomms.com

The party conference season will shortly return to the UK for the first time in a couple of years, bringing with it the usual exodus of think tanks, campaign groups and lobbyists to the cities hosting the political gatherings. Lots of money will be spent on receptions, panel discussions, exhibition  stands and branding opportunities, all in the hope of securing support (or at the very least recognition) for a particular point of view. While media coverage focuses on the big speeches and backroom plotting, the reality is that for the most part, party conferences are glorified trade fairs for those in the business of getting buy-in to policy ideas among those able to act on them. 

Even outside of conference season, the trade in policy ideas thrives throughout the year. On any given week around Westminster there will be a handful of seminars, roundtables and panel events being put on by think tanks. The on and offline pages of national and specialist media will feature strongly argued opinion pieces alongside coverage of new reports and papers. While hugely influential among political movers and shakers, the quality of these interventions will be variable. There will be a lot of thoughtful, innovative ideas put forward, but an awful amount of partisan, poorly informed analysis based on flimsy research as well. 

However, aside from a handful of notable exceptions, universities are often absent from this world. This is a shame. The analysis and evidence that academics can contribute to policy debates is most likely to be drawn from the most rigorous research, while the perspectives they offer will be informed by a depth of ongoing engagement in complex issues. More than this, the UK higher education sector is a national asset that deserves to be fully valued. The huge, and richly deserved, level of public money invested in university research arguably gives the sector a collective status as the nation’s think tank.  

Because of this, ensuring that research has an impact on the wider world by informing public policy is an increasingly important aspect of academic careers. All of society benefits when policy is informed by robust evidence, making it important for researchers to make sure that their work resonates with those making the big decisions. The need to achieve a policy impact with research is now deeply embedded in the regulatory and funding drivers that govern so much of how universities are run. Most significantly, impact is now firmly established as a central part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise which determines levels of quality-related funding and plays a major part in the reputational standing of universities. 

However, the policymaking process can appear daunting to many academics. Policymaking takes place across a range of local, national and international institutions that can appear deeply inaccessible to those unfamiliar with them. It is also bound up in the messy business of politics and often carried out in the glare of the media. 

A lot of support is on offer to help academics navigate this tricky terrain. Sector groups like the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) and bodies like Parliament’s Knowledge Exchange Unit (KEU) play a valuable role, but they are not enough. There is a real need for universities to help facilitate academic engagement in policy making and for academics themselves to develop the skills and understanding needed to have an impact. 

Research England helps universities to achieve policy impact with the Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF). Allocated every year, the SPF supports policy-focused research and allows institutions to invest in programmes and resources that help bridge the gap between policymakers and academics. 

But what should this support look like? From my experience of working with universities on policy engagement programmes and based on what many in the sector are doing, I think that there are five overarching categories of activity: 

  • Work to provide policy makers with a simple point of access to academic research and expertise.
  • Work to create an accessible hub of multi-faceted content that relates academic expertise and research to policy issues.
  • Mechanisms to support and encourage more policy-relevant research activity (particularly cross-disciplinary projects).
  • Tools and development programmes to build the capability of academics to engage in policy.
  • Work to broker dialogue between academics and policy makers/influencers.

The exact nature of how these types of activity are carried out and the offices involved varies hugely across institutions. For example many universities have formed dedicated policy units, while others have work led by impact, public engagement or communications offices. There is no standard model and it is quite right that every institution approaches policy engagement in the ways that are right for them. One principle is universal though: as centres of research excellence universities have the power to influence public policy in ways that have a positive impact on society, and as civic institutions they have a responsibility to make every effort to do so. 

Mark Fuller
Showrunner’s Founding Director, Mark has a wealth of experience in working on policy impact programmes across the higher education sector, including time as Director of Communications of the 1994 Group of universities . As consultant he’s worked with institutions including Newcastle University, the University of Sussex, Aston University, King’s College London, the University of Liverpool, and Manchester University. Throughout 2020 Mark ran all Covid-19 communications for Queen Mary University of London, winning national attention for research on the pandemic and the institution’s response to the crisis. 

We’d love to talk about how we could help academics at your institution to achieve a strong policy impact with their work. Please do get in touch with Mark via mark@showrunnercomms.com or give him a call on 07498 560 288.