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Nicola Buckley and Milena Mueller Santos

14 December 2021, 2:25 UTC Share

Incoming Policy Fellowships – Best Practice and Open Questions

Incoming Policy Fellowships are one example of academic-policy engagement fellowship schemes. They can be effective ways for promoting knowledge exchange, networking, and professional development. The Centre for Science and Policy (University of Cambridge) has been offering Incoming Policy Fellowships for over 10 years and has, in collaboration with the CAPE consortium, collected some learning points.

What is the incoming policy fellow model?

Incoming Policy Fellowships are fellowships for policy stakeholders to visit universities or other organisations with access to expertise to talk to researchers and experts about policy pertinent questions, which academic knowledge might help to address. Initial visits form the start of what is usually a multi-year programme of engagement between policy fellows and research organisations, conducted by policy fellows alongside their jobs.


The potential benefits of incoming fellow programmes, both for universities and policymakers, have been established through some evaluations and reports, although there are few evaluations that have been published. At a recent CAPE knowledge sharing seminar, Dr Kathryn Oliver (evaluation lead for the CAPE project) summarised the current evidence base.

At the knowledge sharing seminar, Policy Fellowships schemes at CAPE, CSaP, Royal Academy of Engineering and University of Bath were reported on. This included a presentation by Chilombo Musa, PhD student at the University of Cambridge, who co-authored a report on the Impact of the CSaP Policy Fellowships scheme. The following benefits were shared by presenters:

Benefits for policymakers

  • Incoming policy fellowships can facilitate knowledge transfer between academic and policy makers. Fellowships can help fellows gather and then communicate technical knowledge more effectively to ministers and other civil servants.
  • In some cases, fellowships have a direct impact on the policy making process​, although, more commonly, benefits tend to be more indirect.

Benefits for universities

  • Policy fellows help researchers to understand the policy landscape and the potential for their research to make a contribution. Researchers gain skills and experience in policy engagement.
  • Researchers value the input that policy-makers can provide for developing research programmes and sometimes policy fellows have given advice on upcoming research grant bids.
  • Policy fellows have contributed to seminars giving early career researchers advice on policy engagement, have given talks for students, and have proposed topics for group Masters projects.

Mutual benefits

  • Policy fellow cohorts can promote learning and networking, which can be further promoted through regular online seminars and in-person networking opportunities. Policy fellowship programmes can initiate and support ongoing relationships between government departments and university departments.
  • Successful policy fellowships can create communities of practice around knowledge interests, which can be further supported by alumni programmes.

Best practices

Experience points to several best practices that can guide successful incoming fellowship programmes:

  • Conversations with policy fellows at the start of the process are important to understand what they could do with the outcomes of their questions. These are commonly carried out by knowledge broker/ research services staff.
  • It can be helpful for organisations to focus incoming policy fellowships around areas of institutional expertise.
  • Good fellowship governance can contribute to the success of a fellowship scheme – if some senior stakeholders from different sectors take part in governance, they can help with recruitment, strategy, and advice.
  • Diversity and inclusivity are important aspects to monitor for fellowship schemes. Continuous evaluation is needed to identify and respond to any issues.
  • Developing virtual programmes during the Covid-19 pandemic has opened new avenues for attracting a more diverse range of policy fellows, including from overseas.

Open questions

While there is a good knowledge base regarding best practices, open questions remain on how continual learning, the contribution to sector-wide knowledge and formalised evaluation can be promoted.

  • What makes a good question to be posed by a Policy Fellow for engagement with academics?
  • Do focused policy questions at the start of a fellowship potentially lead to more tangible policy outcomes at the end?
  • How can evaluation address the differences between hosting a fellow virtually and in in person?
  • What further developments can we make in measuring the impact of incoming policy fellowship programmes?

Nicola Buckley is the Associate Director at the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP), Univeristy of Cambridge. She directs the Policy Fellowship programme at CSaP and is the institutional lead for the CAPE project at Cambridge.

Milena Mueller Santos is the CAPE coordinator at the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP), University of Cambridge. CAPE (Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement) is a project exploring Capabilities for Academic-Policy Engagement, funded by Research England. She is responsible for coordinating CAPE-related activities across the University of Cambridge. She also works closely with the other CAPE coordinators, the CAPE consortium and policy partners.

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