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Stephen Meek, Director of the Institute for Policy and Engagement, University of Nottingham and Chair of UPEN (2019-20)

26 September 2019, 10:36 UTC Share

Looking ahead

UPEN gathered for its first meeting of the Academic year in Bristol on Monday, kindly hosted by Policy Bristol in their rather nice, and wonderfully located, offices between College Green and Bristol’s Waterfront.

The main theme of the day was to look forward. UPEN has had a fantastic first year. From a virtually standing start we are now 40 members and rising. We have built strong relationships with partners in Government and Parliament, and have helped make connections that might not otherwise have happened. The challenge for us is how we consolidate this success, continuing to provide our core service as a conduit between academics and policymakers, while playing a more strategic role in shaping the way policymakers and academics work together.

We began with a session run by Paul Manners and Sophie Duncan of the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). NCCPE’s story began a decade ago as part of a funding council led push to improve public engagement across UK Universities in response to concerns that the public were losing trust in science. The Centre was established to provide a central point of expertise and support to complement direct investment in University led initiatives. They are now a well-established and regarded fixture, with a range of tools and expertise that are drawn on by Universities and funders alike.

The session (brilliantly presented and facilitated by Sophie and Paul – what else would you expect from public engagement gurus!) explored the similarities and differences between NCCPE and UPEN. We discussed in particular what it means to be a network rather than a Centre, how form needs to follow function, and the extent to which ability to do more is a function of resource as much as organisational status.

We followed this with a presentation from Annabel Smith of Bristol One City, who set out the ambitious plans the Bristol Mayor has for the City, setting strategic ambitions that look decades ahead. She set out how they have been working with the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England both to develop the plan and to start addressing the challenges in it. We were also joined by Professor Morag McDermont who talked about the “City Fellows” scheme the University was developing to help support this approach. UPEN colleagues shared experiences of working with local and regional governments. Two themes that struck me were first, that the quality of engagement was directly correlated to the strategic clarity of the government, and that unsurprisingly where there are plans it is easier to engage. The other was that local leaders and officers are under such pressure simply to keep services running from one year to the next that it is often hard for them to engage, however much they would like to.

Finally we discussed UPEN’s priorities for next year, based on a survey conducted over the late summer. This was a really rich discussion, with plenty of ambitious and creative ideas coupled with a pragmatic sense of what can we do realistically this year to make a difference. As well as peer to peer support and how we build profile and reputations, we discussed:

• Diversity – what can we do as individual institutions, as a network and working with partners in Government, Parliament and elsewhere to widen the pool of academics influencing policy.

• Working with Government and others to develop good practice around Areas of Research Interest – using these to develop better and more strategic ways to connect policymakers and academics. There is a risk that commitment to ARIs is vulnerable to the febrile political environment, but agreed that even if that was the case, the underlying issue will remain and therefore it was worth investing in.

We covered a lot of ground in not a lot of time, and I was really pleased with the energy and commitment in the room. A good start to the year….

Stephen Meek, Director of the Institute etc

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