Levelling the field of academic-policy engagement?

What have we learned from evaluating CAPE?

14 . 06 . 2024

Recent years have seen a surge in activities aiming to increase the impact of research on policy, particularly academic-policy engagement initiatives. We have come to understand more about academic-engagement through our evaluation of the ‘Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement’ (CAPE) programme (pre-print here). Funded by Research England, CAPE aimed to create engagement between HEI staff and policy professionals in a range of higher education and policy contexts. Many different activities may be described as ‘engagement’. The CAPE programme was structured by four main types: policy fellowships, seed funding (for projects addressing a policy need); knowledge exchange events; and training.

Our embedded evaluation used a multi-method approach, including interviews, observations and a survey. It took place in ‘real time’ as the four workstreams unfolded between 2021 and 2024. We modified an existing action framework (known as SPIRIT) to use in our analysis.

What are the most promising approaches to support academic-policy engagement?

Our evaluation found that the most consistently well-received initiative was the collaborative seed fund model, for projects jointly-developed between researchers and policy partners. This was found to be a low cost, low-burden intervention for HEIs and participants. It could support experienced engagement practitioners to develop existing programmes of policy-focused work and enhance policy partners’ contributions to research processes.

Seed funding and policy fellowships were valued by HEI and policy participants in terms of capacity building, connectivity and conceptual or attitude changes, more so than instrumental outcomes that directly changed decision-making or policy. Collective knowledge exchange events were considered of value for ultimate instrumental and conceptual outcomes, while training was linked with capacity-building, connectivity and shifts in attitudes to engagement.

What mechanisms and processes underpin successful engagement through the initiatives?

Time and resources are required to support social interaction between HEI staff and policy professionals, to enable bidrectional exchange of knowledge and mutual learning. The degree of relational intensity in engagement activities determines their scope for this type of exchange.

Engagement could be facilitated or hindered by an organisational culture of recognition, reward and support for engagement. These organisational conditions created unequal starting points for engagement novices:

“I'm in a research group which specifically aims to do collaborative work with policy partners. So it's kind of second nature to us. It feels very much valued, alongside the more academic stuff.” [ECR1]

“The idea of what research involves is normally running a trial rather than working with government, [in my department]. There is need for a cultural shift around seeing the value of these kind of activities.” [ECR2]

Relational engagement could be further hindered by either HEI or policy organisations’ capacity and resource constraints, and a lack of processes for embedding, maintaining, sustaining and spreading engagement, beyond isolated funding and individuals.

Which approaches are best suited to promoting inclusion of a broad range of stakeholders?

We found that academic-policy engagement activities can preferentially reinforce the inclusion of experienced practitioners who can be more easily and rapidly ‘mobilised’ to respond. Engagement beyond these ‘usual suspects’ requires processes and resources to ensure that opportunities can build capacity in engagement novices and under-represented groups,to diversify the forms of knowledge which can be drawn upon. Less experienced practitioners valued opportunities for engagement but often required a higher level of support than had been achievable within the CAPE programme.

Future initiatives will need to further consider how to facilitate diverse inclusion from the outset.

What lessons should be taken forward by those wishing to fund or run academic-engagement initiatives?

The relational work of the kind supported by CAPE is just one mode by which evidence use can be promoted. Relational engagement moves beyond a linear model of research communication. Instead of a unidirectional flow from research producers to research users it depends on interaction in some form of shared experience. Theseopportunities may enable mutual learning and understandings of how best to implement ideas to create change. However, as we have seen, there are costs as well as benefits, which should be weighed in terms of the priorities of those within the science for policy system.

One way to recognise these costs and bring a more strategic focus to engagement activities would be to ensure that the capture of learning is prioritised. Learning from initiatives to enhance inclusion can be shared if universities and consortia maintain up-to-date knowledge about structures and mechanisms for academic-policy engagement and consider how to support and draw on these, rather than duplicating initiatives or competing with each other. Improved coordination and strategy can be achieved through effective dialogue and partnership with policy partners, for which enabling mechanisms include Areas of Research Interest (ARIs), the Government Office for Science (GOS) and advisory committees. CAPE, the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN), other HEI-led networks, and policy -led networks, share an increasingly busy space. Partnership and coordination could enable the academic sector to make policy partners a more diverse and effective offer.

Collaborations between academics and local and national government are on the rise and yet, internationally, there is a limited evidence base of how to do this well. Relational engagement between academics and policymakers is often seen as a challenge. There are differences in expectations, priorities and timelines, and assumptions that academia and policy do not see eye to eye, they inhabit separate worlds, they speak different languages. For researchers or policy professionals without pre-existing contacts or networks, it can be particularly difficult to know where to start. There is a need to develop a nuanced understanding what works, to what end, and how. While the CAPE programme has not answered these questions definitively, it has enriched our understanding of academic-policy engagement and moved us closer to understanding how to capture its impact in the future.

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