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Capabilities in Academic and Policy Engagement

28 September 2020, 8:01 UTC Share

Delving under the hood of academic-policy engagement

How do we know if academic-policy mechanisms are working? And what can be done to ensure thatknowledge exchange brokers are valued in the process? CAPE outline their thoughts below.

Knowledge Exchange (KE) has become an increasingly central part of university activity in the past decade. Within this, KE between academia and public policy has steadily emerged as a significant area of activity. Alongside this advancement, there has been a growth in roles that play a vital part in connecting evidence to policy and facilitating engagement. Roles range from Directors in centralised policy units, to facilitators in faculties, to professors of practice in academic departments and those in them come from the world of politics, public policy, think tanks, and academia.

Policy brokers bridge the gap between academic research and policy decision making. We are often the eyes and ears on the ground; watching policy debates, tracking policy careers, and speaking the language of all sides. All this to ensure that relevant evidence is made available to the right people, in the right way at the right time.

We draw on our substantive knowledge of the world around us to construct and deploy a considerable number of policy interventions aimed at reducing the space between academic knowledge and policy. These range from developing bespoke communications, convening and supporting networks, running seed funding schemes to support academic responses to policy challenges, managing Policy Fellowships programmes, co-developing workshops and roundtables, and running longer project partnerships.

Policy brokers facilitating academic policy engagements draw on their tacit expertise learnt on the job or the relevant body of knowledge they have developed over their careers, but when attempting to situate their practices within the evidence-use literature, as Nutley points out, they are rarely able to do so. This is hardly surprising and should not, as Nutley argues, be read as a lack of rigour in the field, but rather it is in part because there is no blueprint available for this type of work and no standard language to fully describe or articulate academic-policy engagement.

A new Research England funded collaboration, ‘Capabilities in Academic-Policy Engagement’ (CAPE), aims to make a step change in our understanding and our capabilities. It seeks to scale up activity through designing and testing different mechanisms in 5 universities (UCL, Cambridge, Manchester, Northumbria and Nottingham). Through co-developing a range of engagement activities, close working with policy partners (including the Government Office for Science, the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology, the Alliance for Useful Evidence and the Transforming Evidence Hub), and delivering activity in different geographical and policy contexts, we aim to determine those which are most effective. Throughout the project, we will also be working with other universities interested in building academic-policy engagement, including through UPEN, and sharing emerging learning with the wider university sector.

CAPE offers an opportunity to consider many of the questions that we and colleagues in the policy broker community are grappling with. How can we structure academic careers and provide the right rewards and incentives to facilitate engagement with public policy? What more can brokers do to encourage greater diversity of participation, and more diverse voices in debates on academic-policy engagement? How can brokers and academics work effectively with uncertainty? And most crucially, what truly works in academic-policy engagement and what does success look like?

By being able to deliver activities coordinated across partners and at a greater scale than we can do individually, we hope that CAPE will be able to make a substantial contribution to illuminating the nuts and bolts of academic-policy engagement. As brokers leading the project, we hope also to consider the specific roles that we and others could and should play; create space to be reflexive on the types of advice and implications of that advice for academic-policy engagement; and to properly address issues of diversity.

The role of broker often involves getting out of the way once crucial connections are made. But this risks making us invisible. The value of the academic and the policy professional in a given interaction is clear, but the value of the broker less so. Do those we interact with recognise the hidden labour often involved in these roles? What would a co-developed agenda with brokers at its heart truly look like? What differences would it have to the outcomes? Would a strategic role for brokers within universities and in other institutions help mature the process of academic-policy engagement and the incentives needed to engage?

These are just a few questions – there will be many others which emerge as the project develops and as the academic-policy agenda continues to evolve. CAPE provides us with an opportunity to shed light on academic-policy engagement from all sides across its different stages and shades. We will be reflecting on the complex interplay between the art of policy brokerage and the science underlying approaches to engagement. Ultimately, we hope CAPE will help us to address the question of how we can move from piloting to fully embedding the mechanisms of academic-policy engagement.

Through CAPE we invite you to join in this conversation and to play a part in how we move from a patchwork of initiatives and functions to a systematic approach to academic-policy engagement with policy brokerage at its heart.

The CAPE team is comprised of Dr Olivia Stevenson and Sarah Chaytor at UCL, Nicola Buckley at the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge, Stephen Meek at the University of Nottingham, Professor Matt Baillie Smith Northumbria University, and Professor Andy Westwood at the University of Manchester.

Further information is available on and via @CAPE_acuk

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