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Professor Arlene Holmes-Henderson MBE

28 November 2023, 8:17 UTC Share

Widening the evidence base for policy: experiences and opportunities

This blog provides a report from an event chaired by UPEN Vice-Chair Professor Arlene Holmes-Henderson and hosted by the Policy Profession as part of its annual online Policy Festival (September 2023) for up to 30,000 civil servants.

Professor Arlene Holmes-Henderson MBE, Professor of Classics Education and Public Policy at Durham University chaired a rich discussion on building bridges between academia and policy-makers, one of this year’s most popular Policy Profession Festival sessions.

She was joined by Dr James Canton, Deputy Director, Public Policy and Engagement, Economic and Social Research Council, Professor Pascale Aebischer MBE from Exeter University and Dr Kristine Zaidi, Associate Director of Programmes at the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Key topics included how policy makers can discover and use a wide range of research, including from the arts and humanities, practical routes that can facilitate building connections and the funding available outside the civil service to support policy-oriented research.

Pascale’s introduction provided an insight into the novel ways in which arts and humanities research can contribute to policy. As Professor of Shakespeare and Early Modern Performance Studies, she took on the coordination of the arts and humanities response to the Covid-19 pandemic, involving more than 70 projects across the UK, researching ways of understanding and mitigating the impact of the pandemic on the population. This role transformed her outlook on working with policy makers, and she now engages with them throughout her research.

The panel reflected on factors that make for successful engagement noting the importance of ongoing dialogue before and throughout the project, co-designing the research questions and jointly agreeing what success means in the specific context. Kristine noted the value of being pragmatic (the ‘art of the possible’) and realistic including with timescales – research can generate the unexpected!  All panel members noted the importance of capturing and sharing the impact of the policy research – however small (for example in footnotes in a report or in a written letter of acknowledgement), as these are important factors by which research is judged by funders and universities.

James and Kristine touched on the many channels which can help broaden connections: brokers can be useful –either in government –  analytical and science functions are well connected with academic networks – in the academic sector through the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) and individual university policy units, and through funders, such as UK Research and Innovation. ESRC, working with GO Science has just launched the Areas of Research Interest (ARI) database, an innovative tool that uses artificial intelligence to link government questions to research that is funded by UKRI ( )

As well as brokerage there are also a range of funding mechanisms to support collaboration: research funders support investments ranging in scale such as What Works centres, policy observatories and rapid advice centres, as well as policy themed  or co-designed funding calls and programmes (UKRI strategic themes – UKRI), policy fellowships schemes and researcher and practitioner placements, and talent accelerator (ESRC Policy Talent Accelerator Network Plus – UKRI) including embedding researchers in government departments (UKRI policy fellowships 2023 – UKRI;)

The panel conversation concluded with reflections on the importance of engaging a wide range of research: by starting with the ‘prism of the challenges’ we face, it’s clear that problems such as health and wellbeing or climate change cannot be solved from one perspective alone; they need multi and inter-disciplinary solutions. Significantly it is important to keep the human being in mind – the methodologies used in the arts and humanities involve deep engagement with stakeholders to understand the impact of policies and the lived experience. The panel concluded with an important plea – to all policy makers- when designing their research areas of interest, to be inclusive of all disciplinary perspectives, and to prepare them with a wide range of research fields in mind.

Finally, for those who’d welcome advice and some top tips: the panel recommended blogs prepared by Arlene available on the PPU web-site.

Working with an academic on your policy – Policy Profession (

Jubilation, trepidation, exasperation – Policy Profession (

How to find free academic input for policy problems – Policy Profession (

How the arts and humanities contribute to policy making – Policy Profession (

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