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Dr Chris Hewson, Faculty Research Impact Manager (Social Sciences), University of York

18 June 2019, 10:56 UTC Share

Open Innovation and Policy Engagement at the University of York

As universities seek to up their game with respect to policy engagement, a range of proactive and reactive strategies, alongside associated processes, have arisen within Higher Education. Both forms of strategy are bound up in the dynamics of a sector that is geared towards sharing best practice, yet at the same time attuned to the increasingly competitive dynamics that characterise the university research funding landscape.

Reactive strategies are familiar. To receive money for policy engagement, one must commit to and/or corroborate research impact in particular ways. Income is tied up in funding mechanisms, including but not limited to Impact Accelerator Accounts (IAAs), the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), pathways to impact statements within UKRI funding bids, as well Research England QR funding tied to REF performance. I won’t cover these here, except to note that the frontier between policy engagement as catalysed via economic incentives (largely a good thing) and being driven and shaped by them (potentially problematic) is a contested one.

How then is investment used? In terms of policy engagement, oversimplification notwithstanding, two key priorities arise. Firstly, to provide a clear offer. Secondly, to align internal structures in order to maximise opportunities. Recognising this, the University of York has launched a Policy Institute, and on 18th of June 2019 signed a three year agreement with the Cabinet Office Open Innovation Team (you can read the official press release for the partnership HERE). The former represents an organic development; a mechanism to draw together a number of activities within a common frame of reference, building on existing interdisciplinary strengths, The latter represents an important departure, and a recognition that policy brokerage has the potential to offer a wider range of benefits to time-pressed academics.

The York Policy Institute is thus an attempt to both streamline, as well as bring disparate support mechanisms under a common umbrella. Key examples include the refocusing of policy activity around government departments’ Areas of Research Interest (ARIs), a clearer set of mechanisms to support researcher mobility, and a demand-led training and capacity building offer.

The Open Innovation Partnership – that sees York join with three other universities (Brunel, Essex, Lancaster) – builds upon the ongoing work of the Open Innovation Team (OIT) created in August 2016 to assist help policy makers generate analysis and ideas by deepening collaboration with academics. The OIT works across all areas of government policy, providing a demand-led, consultancy style service that helps officials understand and weave academic insights into their policy work. During their pilot phase, they supported work on a wide range of topics, including children and young people’s mental health, online harms, industrial strategy, labour market reform and digital transformation (e.g. undertaking the early policy work on the GovTech Catalyst). Key aspects of the partnership include:

• A linking of key research strengths to government need, both at the level of initial scoping and debate, as well as assisting in the shaping of concrete policy proposals (e.g. Green and White Papers)
• Capacity building programmes that target those who might be less experienced, or new to the policymaking process
• Introducing government departments to cutting-edge insight, both subject-specific as well as methodological, in order to boost the circulation of knowledge between government and academia
• Exploring models whereby co-funding might add value to government departments, as well as the HE research offer itself; also exploring mechanisms to package research expertise for third parties

For the University of York, this is an excellent opportunity to generate clear narratives around our policy impact, which we will cover though case studies, blogs, targeted events and (potentially) audio visual materials. Both initiatives are at an early stage, and are at the preliminary scoping phase. After an initial schedule of discussions with key academics, a set of core deliverables will emerge. Notwithstanding the detail, in order to be successful four things must happen:

• Activities must complement existing engagement with government, especially in areas where York has been traditionally strong
• The Institute must be woven into the institution’s wider knowledge exchange (KE) and impact missions
• Demand-led projects must not supplant a clear vision of the ‘York policy offer’
• Opportunities must be explored for lateral engagement with HE partners
• There must be a consideration of how partnership activities might constructively shape training and capacity building offers

Dr Chris Hewson is Faculty Research Impact Manager (Social Sciences) at the University of York.

Author: Dr Chris Hewson, Faculty Research Impact Manager (Social Sciences), University of York

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