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Dr Louise Rutt, Impact and Knowledge Exchange Manager, University of Plymouth

31 October 2020, 7:58 UTC Share

Generating policy impact through civic engagement

How the University of Plymouth supports academic engagement with civic partners to generate a culture of policy impact.

Like many HEIs, in our institution we can readily point to numerous examples of significant policy impact from our research. From the discovery of microplastic pollution in the oceans, to the protection of underwater cultural heritage such as Shackleton’s Endeavour, to policy shifts in how NHS funding formulae are constituted, individual researchers have taken opportunities to provide evidence that has been taken up by policy makers, have worked with policy-influencing organisations, or have been members of policy-making bodies.

In our own Faculty – which consists of Arts, Humanities, Business, and Social Sciences – we are now in a position to strengthen strategic support for policy engagement; to look at how we can build structures and expertise to facilitate our researchers to connect to and influence policy making.

Undoubtedly there is external motivation to do so from the REF, but significantly there is also a keen desire for this from the academics themselves; they recognise both that they’re in a position to meaningfully contribute new evidence-based insights to policy-makers, but also perceive policy-engagement to be a step into the unknown, which will require different skills, knowledge, and tenacity in a different kind of arena to the one they are used to.

As we start to implement a strategy around this then, one aim is to build capacity for policy engagement in a way which works with the strengths and character of the University and the research undertaken. As a University, Plymouth firmly reflects the characteristics of our city and the wider South-West peninsula region; marine and maritime environments and societies, as well as our relatively peripheral location, set the landscape for the engagement of our academics and students.

From our role in enhancing the creative industries and innovative digital technologies, to challenging and changing the policing of harm and hate, the distinctive natural assets, heritage, and people who live here, as well as the social and economic challenges of being a peripheral region, are a vital component. Our academics have their own networks to the communities around us, through knowledge exchange dimensions embedded within both their research and our curriculum, as well as to the networks of organisations that work in these spaces – many of them CICs, third sector bodies, and social enterprises. Social justice and social change is a priority for many academics within our Faculty, as well as for these organisations.

So as we look at how to build capacity for policy engagement within the Faculty, one of our strategies is to support academics to seek opportunities for policy engagement within their existing stakeholder networks: the opportunities to shape research in policy relevant ways through engaged approaches; lobbying opportunities through, for example, third sector partners; and the policy connections these partners have and the potential for our academics to extend their networks in these directions. Dr Zoë James’ research on provision for Gypsies, Travellers, and Roma with regional third sector and local government partners is an excellent example of this locally concerned work which is now influencing policymakers in the UK and beyond. Through building these networks at a local level, Dr James has changed local policy on provision, and has used this work as a starting point for persuading policymakers at a national level of the urgency to reference the specific needs of these groups within relevant policies and laws.

Academic training on direct solo engagement with policy makers is unquestionably important, but past policy engagement shows us that these civic, regional and community networks can be fertile ground through which to affect policy too.

Dr Louise Rutt is Impact and Knowledge Exchange Manager for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Business at the University of Plymouth.

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