Why Connect Research and Policy?

To launch the new UCL Public Policy blog, we asked academics and policy professionals from a range of backgrounds to tell us why they think it is important to connect research and policy.

“At the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), our interest in connecting research and policy is driven by a desire to make the environment in the UK as conducive as possible to research and innovation activity. We don’t do research, but we want to make it as easy as possible for you to do it. This leads us to focus on the decisions that are in the gift of Government that have a bearing on research activity: investment, skills and use of evidence. In any one of these areas, policy changes can have significant impact on the pursuit of research. The amount of public funding available and the purposes to which it is directed have a bearing; the attractors for research-led businesses and charities to operate in the UK; the ability to recruit people with the skills and interest to undertake the research, from home or abroad; and consent to use the results of research to inform policy-making all shape the choices available to researchers in pursuing their work. These are not static policies, but change all the time. In each one of these areas, significant change has occurred in the past three years. At CaSE, we connect research and policy to make sure those changes are for the better.” Dr Sarah Main, Executive Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering

“I want to look at this question in two ways. Firstly, in terms of why it matters, which for me comes down to enabling better policy decisions — so that more relevant information is taken into account and, hopefully, better policies are made with a more positive impact on peoples’ lives. It’s also a way of ensuring that we are getting full value from publicly-funded research knowledge and expertise, by ensuring that such knowledge is informing decisions and contributing to relevant policy responses, whether that’s through the provision of scientific advice in emergencies, addressing societal issues such as how to help people stop smoking or introducing a minimum wage, or framing longer-term discussions such as the future of ageing. Secondly, I want to reflect on why we need to spend time and effort on connecting research and policy: this is because if we don’t make a concerted effort to overcome the numerous barriers — some cultural, some structural — that still exist between the worlds of academia and policy-making, then most of the time those conversations that mean that policy decision are informed by evidence and research won’t happen. And it’s building those conversations and connections to develop trust and mutual understanding that is so important to enable closer interaction between researchers and policy professionals and ultimately, more evidence-informed policy-making.” Sarah Chaytor, Director of Research Strategy and Policy, UCL

Select Committees in the Houses of Parliament are one of ways in which Parliament holds the Government to account for its policies. To make that scrutiny effective, we rely heavily on the willingness of people with relevant knowledge or experience to provide them with their expertise on an issue. In short, we need you. But it’s tempting to imagine that others are more expert than you or better placed to contribute. You worry that your research doesn’t give particularly clear policy answers, and your academic training teaches you not to over-interpret your results. Further research is needed be for you can be certain. Surely there are others who are better placed to advise, and can be more confident in their recommendations? Surely good evidence and analysis will always filter through to the people that need it? Meanwhile, Parliamentary inquiries will go on without you, Government consultations will reach their conclusions, and policymakers will make their decisions. But these decisions and many others will be made without access to your unique knowledge and expertise. If you choose not to engage, or hold back from making a recommendation, I think you’re effectively saying that you’d be happy with any policy in this area, proposed and developed by someone with less knowledge of the issue that you have. I’m willing to bet that’s rarely the truth.” Martin Smith, Specialist, Science and Technology Committee, House of Commons

“It mostly boils down to what motivates you to do your job. If you genuinely want to improve outcomes and have impact with your work, then connecting research and policy is a no-brainer. Policy-makers and researchers have complementary functions and this isn’t a new concept. Policy-makers have long referred to various iterations of ‘open-policy making’, and researchers to ‘implications’ or ‘impact’, which all mean policy informed by research or research with policy focus. Everyone knows that external engagement and collaborations are important. However, often people struggle to understand what it actually means in practice, and how it might apply to their own work. So, in very simple terms, if you’re funded to do research, it’s because your funder knows that your work is important. They know it has strong potential to either directly or indirectly influence at least one area of wider importance. The same goes for policy-makers, who are funded by taxpayers to focus on high-priority areas in the public interest, and who want to base their decisions on the best available evidence. Ask yourself why other people outside your department might find your research important. What is it building towards in the wider arena? If you can answer this then it will almost certainly tell you why your research is important to policy-makers, and why you should take proactive steps to connect with them.” Emily McBride, NIHR Doctoral Research Fellow, Department of Behavioural Science and Health, UCL

What role should research play in decision making?

“Over the last few decades, research evidence has increasingly been used to inform policies and decisions, and has contributed to making the world safer for everyone. With that success has come a greater complexity of the systems we created to keep us safe and a greater intrusion of evidence-based policies in the personal and professional lives of everyone. The growing complexity has led to diminishing returns on the effectiveness of evidence-based policy making; the intrusion to a backlash against experts when evidence-based decisions clash with people’s existing values. Given these twin processes of complexity and intrusion, it seems obvious to me that it is no longer sufficient for academic researchers to simply define the research questions by themselves, gather the evidence, and report the evidence in academic publications. Rather, what is needed is a genuine co-production process where citizens voice their concerns, experts lay out the range of evidence and potential solutions, and decision makers decide. Although I hear the term ‘co-production’ increasingly in settings were researchers, decision makers and other stakeholder communities meet, I don’t think we yet know how to do it well. It requires a shift in perspective from all parties involved, and increased capacity to work together across professional disciplines. To get there, we need to create more ways to connect researchers and policy makers, new forms of training to build up our capacity to collaborate more effectively, and better co-production processes and tools that allow us to each contribute our own expertise without the need to become an expert in someone else’s area of expertise. To solve 20th century problems, we often relied on the insight and genius of individuals. To solve our 21st century problems, we’ll need to become better at creating collective genius.” Dr Kris de Meyer, Research Fellow, Kings College London

“It is important to connect research with policy because at this time of unprecedented global demographic, technological, and geopolitical change, policy formulation needs to occur at a range of scales, for different geographical locations and for the benefit of the many. Given this, ‘policy’ and its makers are ever aware that they need to be properly informed, so they can make tough decisions. Universities are playing a significant and vital role through knowledge transfer practices (eg the exchange, synthesis and application of knowledge). For example, at UCL we produce insights and evidence in the form of research outputs translated for policy audiences. Given the above, the continual connection of research with policy is important as without a focus on getting research into (greater) use, the potential for improving everyday lives will be lost. As Head of UCL Public Policy I’m delighted to be working at a university that acknowledges this need and to be leading a programme to support evidence-informed policy-making.” Dr Olivia Stevenson, Head of Public Policy, UCL

“There are benefits and value for both sides in connecting research with the work of the UK Parliament. From the Parliament side, research is used by staff and directly by Parliamentarians themselves, and it is crucial in informing MPs and members of the House of Lords as they carry out their different roles. The scrutiny of the work of government and government-spending, debates on important issues, passing legislation, and representing constituents; these can all be supported and guided by academic research. We ran a survey of MPs, MPs’ staff and Parliamentary staff which showed that 83 out of 85 strongly agreed or agreed that research was useful to them and their parliamentary work (this was part of research conducted by POST into the Role of Research in Parliament (PDF)). So how is it important for those in academia? Shaping and changing policy and the policy agenda can be incredibly empowering, but even beyond this there are a number of benefits to engaging with Parliament for academics. You can have demonstrable, raise the profile of your research, grow your network, and find new opportunities and experiences. You can find some researchers’ stories about how working with Parliament has helped their career development on our dedicated academics’ web hub.” Naomi Saint, Parliament’s new Knowledge Exchange Manager

“I believe that research is the bedrock of good policy. When civil servants draft a new piece of legislation, they need compelling evidence that the choice being made is one of the best options to be chosen from. However, in our age of information, the pool of evidence is getting bigger and with that comes a lack of means to scrutinise the quality of the research that underlines key findings. Connecting researchers and policy-makers is thus becoming even more crucial as research cannot simply be based on good methodology, but must also be trust-worthy to be selected. Trust and credibility can only be achieved by continuous dialogue and a common understanding of the specific needs of each community. At the end, trust has a trickle-down effect: research that can be trusted, through thorough methodology but also accessible content, will result in a policy that has more chances to be trusted to deliver public good.” Clément Leroy, Research and Policy Engagement Associate — Brexit, UCL

“From advising on the shape of lightning rods in the latter half of the 18th century to calculating safe atmospheric ash densities for aeroplanes at the start of the 21st, the British research community has historically played a critical role in public policy. As society increases in complexity and becomes more dependent on technology, the relationship between academic research and public policy needs to get wider and deeper. The government has steadily improved its capacity for using research evidence since the BSE crisis, but academia has arguably moved more slowly in engaging with policy. UCL is a rare exception. Academics across the university have rightly prioritised working with policy makers. And with co-ordination from UCL Public Policy, and the establishment of the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP), the university has made clear its intention to develop relationships between researchers and policy makers that are practical and productive.” 
Dr Chris Tyler, Director of Public Policy, UCL STEaPP

“Prior to working in academia, I spent several years working in communications in industry, investigating some of the global environmental and social issues the sector was facing. On moving into a new role at UCL, I brought with me a strong conviction that one of the greatest benefits research could generate would be to inform decision-making in the private sector, and in policy. It is a view I hold to this day, and why I greatly enjoy my role in helping to connect researchers with external stakeholders, including policy makers, and helping our researchers to better understand how to present their work so that it can be used outside of academia. Impact, co-production and public good are words we are increasingly hearing in university circles, recognising the value of research and evidence generation far beyond pure academic endeavour. I for one believe that better informed decision making in policy and industry can only benefit wider society in the long run.” Katherine Welch, Head of External Engagements and Partnerships, Public Policy/Grand Challenges, UCL