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Published by

Kayleigh Renberg-Fawcett, UPEN

23 July 2020, 8:11 UTC Share

How UPEN can support Universities and Government’s Areas of Research Interest

Following the recommendation of the Sir Paul Nurse review in 2014, the UK Government launched an innovative mechanism to make it clearer to the outside world what their long-term thinking is, and what research they’d like to engage with. These are now Government’s Areas of Research Interest (ARI).

In response to this, UPEN published a report earlier this year, based on conversations and a survey with UPEN members, which laid out the initial experience of Universities engaging with ARI. In July, UPEN held a roundtable discussion with 10 Government departments and the UPEN ARI team, to share experiences from both sides and see if there are any areas where UPEN can support.

UPEN members have undeniably found the Areas of Research Interest a useful tool for not just better understanding Government’s needs, but engaging their own academic community in policy engagement. A number of members have run workshops for academics across their institution, from early careers to professors, to discuss the questions posed by ARI. Others have held workshops for specific Government departments in partnership with other Universities. One member has transferred the Government’s ARI model to encourage their local government to develop their own set of questions. It is clear that ARI are having a transformative effect in academic-policy engagement and there is a willingness at Universities to better engage with these mechanisms.

Since their ‘launch’ in 2017, there are understandably some aspects of ARI that prove a challenge for Universities, and opportunities to engage are by no means a level-playing field. Funding is crucial, and this goes right across the board for academic-policy engagement. Those universities who do not have central funding, or ESRC IAA Impact money, are unlikely to be able to deliver the all-important sandwich networking events with academics in their region, or buy-out academic’s teaching time as they make the trip to London. Those who are geographically distant, this proves an even more logistical challenge. Being dependent on a flight itinerary from Belfast to London could make what should be an afternoon meeting into a two-day event. And the understanding of ARI outside of England is less strong, so London runs the risk of not engaging with voices representative of the whole of the UK.

And how is impact measured? Perhaps one of the most crucial questions Universities are asking. Yet Government departments simply do not have the resource or capacity to feedback individually on each output that is necessary for academics’ impact measurements.

But there are ways that UPEN can support both Universities and Government in making sure ARI work better for both parties involved. Some ideas discussed during the July meeting are as follows:

• Helping departments design their questions so they are better understood by the academic community. To make sure Government are getting the answers they want.

• Coordinating regional workshops where clusters of universities can meet with specific departments. To help develop those personal relationships and spread the costs.

• Identifying who the main point of contact is for ARI in each department and invite them to speak at a future UPEN meeting. So that when academics are sharing their expertise, it’s not with a generic mailbox.

• Understanding how ARI feeds into the policy machine in each respective Government department. So we can better equip academics with the understanding of how government works and how policy functions in each differing department. Government can spend less time explaining, and more time learning.

There have been some positives that can be taken from academic-policy engagement during the pandemic too. Not all impactful networking needs to take place face-to-face in the first instance. The establishment of the Covid-19 nine working groups in GO-Science demonstrate that it’s possible to identify expertise and new contacts and build teams from across the country, without ever having to have met in person.

Our plan over the next few months is to explore with each department individually what we as a network can do with both Universities and Government departments to ensure that ARI are a long-term success story.

Kayleigh Renberg-Fawcett works for the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) in their Secretariat. For 2019-20, UPEN is hosted by the University of Nottingham. Any UPEN queries, please email

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