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Awkward sandwiches and melting snowballs

Snowball effects have great value in policy influence.

For example, one conversation between an academic and policymaker can raise the academic’s profile in the policymaker’s mind. If they find themselves in need of a rapid but academically robust briefing, it might be that academic whom they call. Consequently, their contribution might shape the policymaker’s understanding of the issue at hand, and later, their response to it. And so on, and so on. Here, the snowball’s size reflects the increasing influence of one academic on policy.

Another type of snowball reflects the diversity of influence resulting from an initial point of engagement. It grows when a single instance of engagement, done well, results in engagement opportunities for other colleagues; and ideally, for new or otherwise underrepresented academics. This is a vital means of broadening the knowledge base that policymakers can draw on. Given policymakers’ tendency for relying on the “usual suspects,” and the impact this has on diversity, this is a snowball we must protect.

But just as COVID-19 disrupts most aspects of life and work, it could have an acute impact on this type of snowball.


Last year, the stars aligned for Prof. Clarissa Smith. She’d just finished a project on young people’s digital intimacies, and had circulated a policy briefing on her findings. The Age Verification element of the Digital Economy Bill had just been shelved, and the Online Harms white paper was under consultation. It was a critical moment. When her briefing landed, it prompted a series of invitations to advise politicians interested in the topic, and to events held by external players who had the power to influence policy.

The snow in this story started falling at one such event. One of the organisations there was planning a study that would inform their position on tech policy. Could Prof. Smith lead it? they asked. She couldn’t, but she knew someone who could.

She directed them to Prof. Lynne Hall, based in the School of Computer Science, whose research could make a clear difference to the organisation’s work. It’d be the first time they’d worked with this academic, and the first time Prof. Hall’s voice would be heard by policymakers in this field.

With the project now complete, they’re preparing to launch a report at an event for policymakers. The location? The internet, of course.


Let’s return to that initial snowfall. It fell in a room filled with people with overlapping interests. Sandwiches were out in full force, and attendees once more found themselves trying to eat a sandwich while holding a plate and a coffee and network and appear graceful. It’s a combination of demands so complex that the coordination needed to meet it defies storage in muscle memory. (Note to organisers of such affairs: provide tables. More than you think is necessary. And then add two more).

These uncomfortable situations are, though, enormously powerful. It’s over awkward sandwiches that like-minded folk meet, talk, understand each other’s interests and needs, and discuss opportunities to work together. It’s where Prof. Smith was invited to collaborate with another organisation, an opportunity she passed onto someone with the right experience. It’s unlikely that this collaboration would have happened without this encounter.

And so to the forthcoming launch. Were it a face-to-face event, Prof. Hall might come away with more contacts, and perhaps a collaboration opportunity for herself, and/or another colleague. The snowball that started with Prof. Smith’s policy briefing would grow. Individual academics would gain policy engagement experience, and policymakers would gain new contacts – and more diverse viewpoints.

Time will tell whether online events create the right conditions for successful networking and, indeed, if they’re here to stay. But university coffers are taking a massive hit, and limiting staff travel is an easy way of cutting costs – especially now we’ve had three months to acclimatise to online events. I predict that many of the events that’d ordinarily foster productive networking will move online. It’s vital, then, that we find a way to ensure that such events continue to allow networking to take place, and for engagement and influence to snowball in this way. Because if these snowballs melt, policymakers will, once more, find themselves picking up the phone and calling one of the usual suspects.

Dr. Rachel Ramsey is the University of Sunderland’s impact officer and author of the University’s impact strategy. She works on the ground supporting academics to plan and realise ambitious impact, and at a strategic level guiding University decision-making and investment in impact.

Posted 29/06/2020 16:35