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Dr Chris Peters, Communications & Engagement Manager at the University of Manchester

04 June 2019, 11:36 UTC Share

Don’t forget to look local

While national Government has an ever increasing amount of support available for policymaking, it’s important not to leave local and regional policymakers out when it comes to providing scientific advice.

The UK has an abundance of expertise helping to inform and improve policy. There are now more routes than ever before to get scientific expertise into the hands of policymakers.

UK Government departments are publishing (and maintaining) ‘living documents’ called Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) – highlighting the main research questions they are facing and liaising directly with Universities as to how best to find the answers. Last year the Department for Work and Pensions ran a workshop hosted by the Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research at the University of Manchester in order to update its ARIs. These ARIs are a relatively new development, with most still in their first iteration, but the appetite is there both within Government departments and Universities to help use these as a reference to how research can best reflect the needs of policymakers, and to ensure policymakers are up to date with the latest research. 

Whilst ARIs are a fresh face in the policy engagement space, the House of Commons Library last year celebrated its 200th anniversary. An independent research service for Members of Parliament, the Library provides politically impartial briefings to all MPs and provides responses to bespoke questions, often involving input from academics based at Universities across the country. The House of Commons Library responds to, on average, 30,000 enquiries per year from MPs. Similarly the House of Lords Library provides a research service for the Peers, and last year published 268 research briefings. 

This year celebrating its 30th anniversary the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) is Parliament’s in-house group of policy-wonks, publishing topical briefings for both MPs and Peers. Many academics first come across POST through its long standing fellowship scheme, where PhD students spend a few months working as part of the POST team on briefings, before returning to academia with a much clearer understanding of what happens when science and policy meet. And that exchange is something the newly formed Knowledge Exchange Unit is trying to support. Through training sessions for researchers across the country about how best to interact with Parliament, the KE unit is another enabler, just like UPEN, in the policy engagement space.

There is of course, more that could be done. Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser is very clear that the ‘how can science help?’ question is still too rarely asked across the civil service, and he has been clear that his priorities include strengthening the departmental Chief Scientific Advisers network as well increasing the number of scientists within departmental teams in order to take advantage of their training. 

But while the UK Government and Parliament has such provision available for scientific advice, local authorities are facing an increasing level of responsibility without anywhere near as much support. The devolution agenda means more responsibility is shifting from central government to city regions and Mayors. Sir Patrick has himself put the issue of regional scientific advice high on the list of the incoming chief scientific adviser for the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Is there a need for an extra layer to the scientific advice structure in the UK, working at and city region level?

“The question is about science advice in cities, rather than, necessarily CSAs in cities. And the reason I say that is, as far as I can tell, we’ve found only one person who is actually named as a CSA in a city, in Southampton.”

Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser giving evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology committee

Do Universities have the answer? 

As Britain’s first civic university, the UoM was founded by and for the people of Manchester, and community remains a fundamental part of our work. Much of this work, at the policy level, revolves around providing a rigorous evidence base for the devolution of powers to Greater Manchester from national government. ‘Devo Manc’ represents the most significant devolution of powers to a city-region in England and questions remain as to how this may be repeated across the rest of the country, and how best expertise can inform policymaking that this new regional level.

One example of this is the work done by Tyndall Manchester. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), Manchester City Council (MCC) and Tyndall Manchester have together drafted a plan to make Manchester a zero carbon city by 2038. A target more ambitious than what we currently have at a national level, so although the reach might not be as great, the significance can’t be doubted. And this work is being looked at by other local and combined authorities, with a group from across the country meeting next week to see how bespoke carbon reduction targets can be created for their regions. One thing we regularly hear from civil servants is whether policy suggestions from our researchers have been tried anywhere else before. Being able to show them something has worked already, albeit at a smaller scale, can often strengthen the argument for a national scale intervention. 

Next week Policy@Manchester will also be hosting a group from within the GMCA to try and help address knowledge gaps, and tackle the questions facing local policymakers on issues including flood protection, natural capital and the circular economy. Local authorities don’t have ARIs (yet) so in place of that you need to build lasting relationships where policymakers see the benefits researchers can provide. 

Don’t forget to look local

With Universities busy polishing impact case studies ahead of the REF deadlines, lets make sure that local authorities aren’t being ignored. To be fair most Universities are doing this in one way or another, but with the direction of travel on devolution and the importance of the upcoming local industrial strategies, the need for scientific advice at the local level is only going to become more pressing.

Dr Chris Peters is Communications & Engagement Manager at Policy@Manchester ( ).

Author: Dr Chris Peters, Communications & Engagement Manager, Policy@Manchester

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