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Ben Hepworth, Ministry of Justice

26 August 2020, 8:10 UTC Share

Navigating the seas of knowledge exchange

In his essay, ‘On justice, and how to know it is there’, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman remarked: “It is in times of crisis that the routine, daily, perpetual and habitual distribution of privileges and deprivations is abruptly recast as ‘extraordinary’, a fatal accident, emergency – and so brutally drawn to the surface and brought into dazzling light for everyone to see.”

Written nearly a decade before the Covid-19 pandemic and its spotlight on inequality, this statement certainly resonates in 2020.

Whilst surfacing the issues is one task, overcoming them is another – and this is the current task facing governments around the world. Whether the coronavirus crisis, unpicking systemic inequality, or tackling the climate emergency, government departments need evidence and expertise provided by academic research to underpin key decisions and policies. To ensure research focuses on pertinent questions, and to enable effective knowledge exchange between government and academia, there needs to be a common frame of reference. The Areas of Research Interest (ARI) initiative provides this.

Publishing a document that outlines a government department’s medium-term evidence requirements and priorities is quite an undertaking. With a solid output – a publication – it can feel like the end of a process that should yield immediate results, however it is only the beginning. The best ARI publications include just enough detail so that researchers can relate to them, but not so much that they are unwieldy – they need to give a comprehensive flavour. That said, no publication can satisfy all, and any will be rendered partially obsolete over time, but when used as a conversation-opener, these points are mitigated.

And so the ‘ARI Roadshow’ was born, and in spring 2018 I found myself contemplating a huge plate of falafel in an ornately decorated room overlooking the garden of Newnham College, Cambridge, attempting awkward conversation with somebody I’d just met. This fledgling encounter with research engagement showed enough promise that it was worth repeating – multiple times in fact. Since that Fenland falafel I’ve eaten sandwiches in Southampton, couscous in Colchester, and shortbread in Scotland. But none of this could have happened without the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN). They provided a ready-made network of expert knowledge brokers, committed to mobilising academic research within government – mirroring the aims of the ARI initiative. Their members helped iterate the workshop format to make it more conducive to meaningful, collaborative outcomes.

By engaging with UPEN knowledge brokers working on behalf of researchers, rather than individual researchers themselves, it better ensured diversity of background, opinion, and scientific discipline in attendance – all are vital for inclusive policymaking. Furthermore, UPEN itself is geographically diverse, something many government departments struggle with. The UPEN report, Engaging with UK Government Areas of Research Interest, gives a good account of their interactions with multiple government departments since the inception of the ARI initiative, and is a testament to the work and dedication of its members.

The dynamism provided by an engagement workshop far exceeds the content of a static publication, and there is no substitute for human interaction and the serendipity that flows from the union of a group. Some of the most impactful outcomes from workshops I’ve attended haven’t come from the bodies of workshops themselves, they’ve come from peripheral activity – marginal discussions, walks to the station, and generally via meeting people from domains and disciplines not otherwise encountered – none of which can be planned. The ARI initiative provides a structure and focus, but the unstructured encounters that flow from it are what can really drive meaningful collaboration.

One of the benefits of Covid-enforced remote-working is the breaking of geographical boundaries, but in working online all meetings have become structured and timely, with limited peripheral space. It remains to see whether we can recreate the more unstructured, liquid conditions required for serendipitous success. A large part of the success of the ARI initiative is down to UPEN, and I’m confident they’ll find a way to navigate these waters…

Ben Hepworth is a mathematician working in the Ministry of Justice Evidence, Engagement and Experimentation Unit. Ben leads on fostering collaborations with researchers to facilitate the exchange of evidence and expertise, previously working in a similar role in DWP. Prior to this he completed his PhD and taught at the University of Leeds.

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