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Gavin Costigan

19 March 2019, 4:57 UTC Share

Public Policy|Southampton the journey so far

Whenever I tell people that I work at a university, their first question is usually: What do I teach? Even amongst people who know the complexity of university structures and the vast number of roles that exist across Professional Services, explaining what a public policy team does is not straightforward because we are still the new kids on the block within higher education institutes. So as I look back at the last three years at the work of the public policy team in Southampton since its establishment as a cross-university unit in 2016, it’s worth reflecting what have we actually achieved?

The driving force behind having a public policy team at Southampton was to increase the policy impact of the research that we carry out. Of course, financial drivers such as the Research Excellence Framework and impact grants from Research Councils make it easier to afford a dedicated team. Fundamentally, though, it is the right thing to do. Policymakers need the evidence and expertise which exist in universities like Southampton. But they have neither the time nor the knowledge to find it. And so many of my academic colleagues are passionate about seeing their research used, and are willing to put in the time, but need ideas on how and where to engage.

Over the last three years, we’ve made countless introductions, taking academics to policymakers and vice-versa. Bringing a team from BEIS and DCMS to campus to discuss developing web, internet and AI technologies. Securing the support of the High Commissioner of Antigua and Barbuda to set up a programme of Government visits for a team of researchers investigating disaster management in that country. Discussing food security with Defra, the Arctic with the Foreign Office, driverless cars with the Department for Transport, and migration with the Home Office. Not all of these have led to the kind of impact that can be recorded and measured and submitted as part of an Impact Case Study to the REF (though many have), but they do all lead to policymakers better informed about the evidence, and academics more aware of the knowledge gaps in Government.

We have also had some real impact working with Parliament. Supporting our academics to submit responses to Parliamentary Inquiries, and then encouraging Select Committees to call them to give oral evidence, has led to an increase in people being directly quoted in Committee reports. And we’ve seen an increase in the number of academics being asked to act as specialists for particular inquiries. 

Some of the most surprising benefits have been in placement opportunities for PhD students. We did not set out three years ago to focus on such placements, but we quickly found both opportunities and small pots of money to fund them (though not without the odd bureaucratic issue along the way). Something that delivers for both policy organisations and PhD students, and increases Southampton’s reputation with both, is a real win. And on occasions, those placements have led to new collaborations with the university.

In recent months, Southampton has taken the lead for the new Universities Policy Engagement Network, UPEN, and it’s been a great privilege to be its first Chair. It is early days, but already UPEN is achieving some of its aims, increasing the impact and awareness of the expertise in universities, and beginning to identify new opportunities. Speaking just from the Southampton perspective, UPEN has enabled us to make more new contacts more quickly than we could have alone, and policy organisations see real benefits in being able to speak to 28 universities (so far!) rather than just one. The Southampton team are also using UPEN to learn from the experiences and expertise in other universities there are so many good ideas out there.

It was not clear three years ago whether the trend in specialist public policy support within UK universities was a short term fad. From our experience in Southampton, there’s both a clear need for it, and increasingly small pots of money to help support it. And the enthusiasm with which universities are getting involved with UPEN suggest it’s not just us in Southampton who think so. 

I can’t wait to see what the next three years bring.

Gavin Costigan is Specialist Advisor at Public Policy and Chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN). He is also Chief Executive at The Foundation for Science and Technology.

Author: Gavin Costigan Specialist Advisor, Public Policy|Southampton/ Chair, Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN)

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