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Dr Olivia Stevenson

02 April 2019, 4:54 UTC Share

Making space for new models of academic-policy engagement

As Head of UCL Public Policy, I lead UCL’s institutional initiative to support academic-policy engagement. I haven’t always had this role and reflecting back on my career to date, I have been on a journey of discovery to get there.

During my PhD, which critiqued New Labour education and technology policies, I had no engagement with policy professionals. My post-doc project had some involvement through a steering committee but it was minimal. My engagement and fascination began to ramp up whilst working in a senior research role for an ESRC-funded project ‘the geographies of missing people’. This project had policy professionals at its core and adopted a co-production approach. From that point onwards, I have become increasingly convinced that there can be no impact without engagement.

I have focused on a series of initiatives over the past year, encouraging early engagement with policy professionals and providing space and time for students and early career researchers to ‘give it a go’.

1.UCL Policy forum
UCL Policy forum is a student-run initiative to engage students, academics and industry professionals in a discussion about policy issues. It has run for the last two years with support from my team and UCL ChangeMakers. Its grass roots activities, which started out with a few interested undergraduate students on UCL’s Arts & Sciences BASc programme, has grown into an organising committee of 8 students in different years and degree programmes. They share an interest in delving deeper into public policy and understanding how it shapes society. The students are highly committed and their last event on AI & Society attracted an audience of 200 participants!

2. Science policy network
It’s not uncommon to hear stories of early career researchers being told to focus on REF-able papers and that a “speculative conversation with a policy professional is probably not worth your time”. Some universities are taking steps to counter this and I am pleased that UCL’s criteria enables researchers to be promoted on the strength of their policy engagement.

Recognising this disconnect between university cultures, the world of public policy and the increasing importance of gaining all round experience, three UCL PhD students, Lucy Irvine (Anthropology), Alessandro Allegra (STS) and Oscar Williams (Chemical Engineering), set up Sci-PEN: Science-Policy Exchange Network. It’s a Network for graduate students and researchers interested in building connections between scientific research (in its broadest sense) and public policy. Operating via informal seminars and skills-focused workshops, the Network provides a platform for peer to peer learning, learning from the policy community and policy engagement skills development. Its mission is to bring about a culture change in academic-policy engagement. It is early days but they already have their first event planned for May where they will launch the Network. UCL Public Policy is delighted to be supporting this valuable, student-led initiative.

3. Policy-led summer schools
In 2018, alongside other UPEN members Manchester and Northumbria, UCL was awarded a Catalyst grant to run three individual but linked summer schools for Undergraduate and Master’s students. The curriculum is purposively co-designed and will be co-delivered with policy-led organisations. Partners include representatives from local and national government, think tanks, charities and campaigning organisations.

The purpose is to develop knowledge and skills whilst addressing current real-world policy topics and problems. There is a paid policy internship providing students with the opportunity to explore the policy questions devised in the summer school and to try out their newly acquired knowledge and skills.

Each partner university has designed their summer school slightly differently with a unique focus. For example, Northumbria’s course will explore the role of volunteering in national and local government strategies to address poverty, inequality and development in the global North and South. Manchester’s will further develop its devolution programme. Delivered in partnership with GMCA and the ten local authorities in GM, the programme will include students and Council staff as participants building pipelines, experience and capacity for policymaking in a devolved setting.

We are working with UCL’s Global Citizenship Programme, academics and research colleagues in the Faculty of Laws to offer a two week course during term time, for students from all disciplines. The curriculum covers policy design and involves input from external policy partners, advocacy and campaign groups and academic expertise in law. Students will develop their own independent research skills through projects focusing on legal and policy case studies, working with policy partners and presenting outputs to them. At the same time, we are establishing three policy hubs and opening up sessions to students in different locations.

It is amazing to think how much research cultures have changed. I would have benefitted enormously from these initiatives if they had been available during my personal career development. Effective brokerage, communication and collaboration between researchers, policy professionals, practitioners and funders is essential. We don’t know what the full impact of these initiatives will be yet, but there is no doubt that the new academic-policy engagement landscape will help everyone involved to meet the challenges and opportunities.

I hope that UPEN will champion these types of initiatives, which make space for the ‘learning by doing’ model of policy engagement that I have found so helpful.

Dr Olivia Stevenson is Head of UCL Public Policy and a Co-founder of the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN).

Olivia works with academics and policy professionals to build networks and joint activities. Leading the UCL Public Policy initiative, Olivia generates collaboration opportunities to improve the quality of engagement between academic research and public policy and manages strategic initiatives. Olivia is formerly a board Member for the Campaign for Social Science and has over 10 years’ research experience, delivered a range of internationally recognised high impact research projects and related Knowledge Exchange/Knowledge Transfer activitiesFurther details and publications can be found by visiting her UCL research profile.

Author: Dr Olivia Stevenson, Head of UCL Public Policy and a Co-founder of the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN)

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