Talking about what works and why in government-academic engagement

A Transforming Evidence workshop gathered different disciplines and sectors to explore challenges and opportunities in improving a tricky relationship

13 . 03 . 2020

The room was so full there was a last minute dash to bring chairs out of storage for those standing at the back. The reason – passionate interests across many sectors in research on research, in how research and evidence are used and in learning about and improving on current practice.

The objectives of the Transforming Evidence workshop on government and academic engagement were to convene cross-disciplinary and sectoral conversations more effectively, to generate new research addressing genuine gaps and to build community. The event, on February 25, was a promising first step in sharing our interests, the challenges and beginning to work together as a community to address these goals.

Diverse attendees from government and academia

Not only were there a lot of us, there was a high-quality of input and engagement from the attendees, who came from across the country and from both academia and policy. Delegates were from the Cabinet Office, Learned Societies, Policy Units, Go-Science, British Academy and from several Universities.

We began with discussion fodder, in the form of two presentations on what has been tried, by whom and to what effect, and the insights from political science and policy theory, both of which will be written up as separate blogs. Breaking into smaller groups, we took on the challenge of thinking about the following questions:

To promote improved engagement between academics and governments, what has been tried? By whom? To what effect? What don’t we know?

A research agenda for Transforming Evidence

Ultimately we were asked to come up with gaps or key areas for Transforming Evidence to focus on. These were:

Framing and engagement: how do we motivate users to engage with research and evidence? Framing is crucial for engagement because academics and policymakers speak different languages and have different priorities. Engagement goes beyond communication; learning to capture and hold each others’ attention is part of the process of working together.

Measurement: Measuring the impact of research is challenging – current approaches tend to focus on a narrow stream of impacts and activities. Given the mechanisms of how policy happens we need to look again at measurement and address the systematic collection of better evidence. This would allow UKRI and others to fund more relevant research. Measurement is a broad problem and every field has its challenges. Better to focus on solutions than getting caught in the weeds.

Agendas: Developing a cross-sector community and response to what we know and where we are. Being clearer about what’s missing in current investments that aim to improve engagement – we need to think about how to build more sustained engagement over the long term. And new initiatives that aim to build relationships across research and policy will need support from current institutions and systems. What kinds of activities and investments will really allow them to thrive?

Devolution and local government: Much of the talk about policy making focuses on a national level but there are significant opportunities for impact at a local level. Devolution may lead to new opportunities for closer engagement. How do we feed researchers the questions they could be answering, and build new relationships? How do local governments measure impact? There were examples from Essex and Liverpool that can be followed up on in work around working with local government.

Influencing: Understanding how influencing works in Whitehall and other policy-focused environments is complicated. We know that there are processes but often influencing is personality driven. The gathering of evidence on best practice could be inserted into materials for those joining the civil service and shared as tools to adapt work feeding into the civil service.

Mechanisms and incentives: Researchers have changing views on career pathways and incentive systems. Open access and issues around accessing research are evolving, but remain a barrier for many in the policy world. The researcher’s way of thinking begins with asking the right question, whereas speed is the priority for policymakers, who are more interested in the willingness to answer rather than the sensitivity and depth of the answer to a question.

Values: This ties into the questions around incentives but the question raised by participants was: what is the moral purpose behind these engagement activities? Are we attempting to reflect on the ethical and moral aspects, or just being distracted by the far-from-insignificant practical and logistic challenges?

Next steps

For our next steps, we propose that working groups address some of the questions above and will ask delegates and others in our community to volunteer their expertise. We believe the above can be grouped into three areas:

  1. Mechanisms and evaluation, encompassing understanding influencing mechanisms and incentives, measurement and impact and local to international engagement
  2. Values and purpose, including framing activities and engaging audiences and ethics and practices, especially around difference
  3. Supporting engagement, practical training and resourcing

There is quite an agenda developing here, but we have excellent skills and experience as well as initiatives to mobilise in the community to take the agenda forward. We need to ensure we develop a shared lexicon as we move forward on this. Watch this space for more information and to get involved.

In the meantime, a plug for Overton, which was mentioned during the day. This is a tool we’ve been working on behind the scenes with the brains behind Altmetric and you may enjoy exploring it. Do let us know what you think.

Ruth Francis is a Communications Specialist working with Transforming Evidence

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