What academics really think about policy engagement

In May 2018 I began a parliamentary academic fellowship with the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development. This committee, like many others, hears mainly from a small group of universities, mainly in London and the South East, and wanted to know how to engage a wider range of academic expertise across the country.

To identify the barriers to engagement and to understand the incentives for engagement as academics themselves see them, we co-designed an online survey for 551 academics working on international development at 13 UK universities, receiving 168 responses. Two main findings, relevant across disciplines, and their potential implications are set out below.

Finding 1: Academics express a high degree of willingness to contribute, but are uncertain as to the value that institutions place on this

An overwhelming majority of respondents (90%) expressed a willingness to provide written or oral evidence in support of a select committee inquiry. However, only 60% of our respondents believe that giving evidence to a Select Committee is viewed as prestigious by their institution, with 36% answering ‘don’t know’.

In the free-text sections, academics raised concerns that time for policy engagement is not clearly recognised in workload models or career progression markers (e.g.: probation review, promotions criteria). This constitutes a significant barrier to attracting more academic experts to engage with policy, particularly those on precarious contracts.

Finding 2: Academics believe engaging with committees could create research impact, but show limited awareness of what kinds of impact are likely or possible

For many academics this is still a new activity. 70% of respondents felt that engaging with committees could affect the impact of their research, but less than one-fifth had submitted evidence.

The free-text comments showed that many academics appreciate investments made by universities in professional support for policy engagement, but they have little sense of what impact is possible from, for example, submitting evidence to committees.

As long as academics remain uncertain as to what investment of time and energy is needed and what it is likely to lead to, many remain wary of policy engagement.

Lessons learned

What does this research mean for policy engagement and public affairs teams?

1. Providing clear information is key to getting academic buy in: For many academics, their first engagement with a committee was the result of being directly contacted by parliamentary staff seeking quick responses. Connecting them with experienced peers, giving a realistic sense of the time involved, and providing concrete examples, all supported academic researchers to respond positively and capitalise on these approaches.

2. Managing expectations about impact requires a shift in how we talk about policy engagement: Many academic researchers spend their professional lives applying for grants where success rates are low, and submitting articles which are rejected by publishers or undergo multiple rounds of revision before appearing in print.

Submission is generally recognised as worthwhile activity, even when unsuccessful. Engaging with policy needs to be seen in the same way. It is an activity – like grant or article writing – with its own conventions (e.g.: on how to write compelling written evidence) and, in the majority of cases, academic expertise advances policy development or scrutiny incrementally.

The chances of fundamentally shifting the terms of debate in a way that leads to significant, measurable impact are small, comparable perhaps to publishing in Nature or securing a once-in-a-career multi-million pound grant. It is still, nevertheless worthwhile as part of a portfolio of engagement activity which ebbs and flows throughout a career.

Our survey suggests universities can best support academics by continuing to tackle knowledge gaps, connecting researchers with specific opportunities, and by providing clearer guidance on the investment of time and skills development needed to do this well.

Finally, reflecting concerns academics raise about likelihood of impact, the survey suggests that better and more systematic recognition of acts of engagement, alongside the celebration of high-profile outcomes, would help build a stronger culture of policy engagement for academics at all career stages.

Dr Danielle Beswick is a Senior Lecturer in the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham. Her current research interests are primarily centred on UK-Africa relations, UK development policy and international volunteering by political party members.

 Author Dr Danielle Beswick, Senior Lecturer in the International Development Department, University of Birmingham
Author Dr Danielle Beswick, Senior Lecturer in the International Development Department, University of Birmingham

Follow Danielle on Twitter: @drdbeswick
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Posted 09/05/2019 15:15