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Chris Sims, Head of Policy, Institute for Policy and Engagement

12 October 2020, 7:58 UTC Share

Equality of voice in policy impact: seizing the pandemic moment

How the pandemic is bringing equality questions to the foreground in academic-policy engagement.

For those of us working at the interface of research and policy, these are challenging times. Like everyone else, our usual ways of working have been disrupted – but unlike more established disciplines, the pandemic has come along at a point when the ground rules for policy engagement are arguably still being written. As Kathryn Oliver and Paul Cairney have argued, the evidence base for much of ‘best practice’ in the field is scanty, and much remains unexplored in terms of the why, how and who of engagement. The need for greater understanding and interrogation of the research-policy relationship is reflected in the proliferation of new initiatives like POST’s academic fellowship scheme and the Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement programme.

On the one hand, the far-reaching disruption caused by Covid has further muddied what were already quite muddy waters. On the other, the still-formative nature of the field means that while the people and institutions working on policy impact had our standard ways of working, these were far from well-established. We were already an evolving field, so evolving to cope with the changed situation has arguably felt like less of a shock than it may have for others.

This means that we have an opportunity – to recognise how the worlds of policy and research will be affected in the long term by the pandemic, and to fit what we do to that rather than what has gone before. That’s a big statement, the implications of which are far beyond the scope of a humble blog post.

But one key area where the pandemic presents a chance to improve on the past is that of diversity of voice – the question of which experts get policy makers’ attention. And this, in my view, is an area that goes to the very heart of what we are attempting to do with policy impact – because we can’t claim to be improving the basis of decisions if the expertise we contribute does not reflect the breadth of expertise that exists.

One line of inequality stands out as potentially ‘having its moment’: the long-acknowledged need to broaden out beyond the ‘golden triangle’ of Cambridge, Oxford and London to tap into the deep wells of knowledge that exist elsewhere. As activity shifted online in the wake of Covid-19, many an academic from further afield has found new opportunities to speak directly to decision makers in ways previously limited to those based a short hop from the corridors of power. Finding time in busy people’s diaries has proven somewhat easier when the ask is simply to dial into a Zoom meeting. And it turns out that when in enforced isolation, policy makers are as receptive as anyone to something approximating face to face contact.

Things will, at some point, shift back again – but both researchers and policy makers are now far more comfortable than before with virtual engagement. So there’s good reason to think that geography will be less of a factor in who gets heard in future.

Other areas of EDI are less clear. To speak in stereotypes for a moment, virtual engagement favours the tech-savvy young researcher already active on social media, so arguably this is a good moment to address the relatively low profile of early career researchers. But in a high-stakes world, are policy makers willing to take a chance on as-yet-unproven experts? More importantly, in a largely online world is it feasible for younger researchers to develop the networks and social capital on which many a senior academic’s public profile has been built?

This is just a small sampling of some of the Equalities questions posed by the present moment. As we develop solutions for policy impact in a world thrown into disarray, it is our responsibility to ask ourselves not just whether we are facilitating equality of access, but whether we are making the most of this moment in history to create a more equal – and therefore more informed – future.

Chris Sims is Head of Policy Impact at the Institute for Policy and Engagement, University of Nottingham.

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