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Eleanor Bayley, Deputy Head of Policy Engagement, University of Oxford

04 February 2020, 9:01 UTC Share

Support for policy engagement internationally – how can we strengthen our offer?

As relative newcomer to the higher education sector it’s a privilege to work more closely with leading researchers whose evidence is making a difference. Policy engagement initiatives within UK universities are clearly making strides in facilitating the formation of evidence-based policy in local and national government.

We shouldn’t forget, however, that the relevance of research at UK universities can also be international. Having worked with governments and parliaments abroad for the last eight years, I feel that we haven’t fully explored the value, perspectives, and applicability of UK research to international contexts. After all, the need for high quality evidence transcends domestic boundaries.

It seems to me that academic research has the potential for international application in at least two ways. Firstly, it can target specific country contexts. The University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), for example, have been conducting research on the impact of tiger populations on Thailand’s forest complex, with consequences for conservation and community policy. Secondly, research doesn’t have to focus on a locality, but could be applied more broadly. A recent study conducted by the University of Oxford and the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm looked at the suicide risk and interventions at the population level, designed and intended to inform the field for any country.

Planning our support and facilitation for researchers to engage with policymakers outside the UK is a challenge, but one that Oxford’s policy engagement team is looking to understand and address more effectively. As we learn and design policy engagement support for researchers to engage internationally, these are some of the factors that we’re bearing in mind:

Formal policy engagement opportunities may be fewer. The formal policy engagement channels that are opening up in the UK (such as fellowships with the UK parliament or the development of UK government departments’ Areas of Research Interest) don’t necessarily exist in other countries. To seek more formal channels for policy engagement in other countries, we are focusing on understanding how different governance institutions bring in evidence, and how to work with them.

Formal policy engagement may come through project partnerships with government departments and with non-governmental organisations. The WildCRU, for example, are delivering their project in partnership with Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, the Freeland Foundation, Panthera, and the global wild cat conservation organization.

In a number of contexts, more informal engagement may be necessary, and our policy engagement function may play less of a practical role in these cases. It is still valuable, however, to draw out and share the learning from those who have developed productive professional relationships with policymakers internationally. Their insights can help to support early career researchers to navigate this.

Understanding context and resources. Understanding the political context is crucial for any planned engagement with policy. However, it is also important to understand that governments have different structures and resources with which to engage research and evidence. Ultimately, policy engagement activities will have to be cognisant of and realistic about the resources available in different countries in order to design and deliver effective public policy and reform. This is relevant for the UK as well as internationally.

Understanding perceptions of our position. Whatever the composition of nationalities in a research team, when acting and engaging as an institution the research and policy will be viewed as coming from a foreign entity. This can have some advantages as well as drawbacks. Whilst researchers may be seen as an extension of UK policy in some contexts, it could be an advantage as non-citizen researchers may not be viewed as being politically aligned. Either way, it is important for researchers to reflect on how they may be viewed within the political context that they are working.

Working with local networks and partnerships. We believe that engagement and partnerships with other local actors is valuable, including universities or think tanks. They can support researchers to better understand the political barriers and opportunities, and our researchers can access local networks and understand local issues, strengthening the quality and applicability of their research. However, researchers should be aware of political affiliations of organisations, groups or individuals. We want our policy engagement function to play a role in providing guidance on how to research, establish, and maintain partnerships and communication with non-governmental partners.

Developing channels for more formal engagement with multilateral institutions. As well as engaging with governments, research can be relevant and even targeted at multilateral governance. Pathways to engage with multilateral institutions are not always clear. We are looking at how to best facilitate the uptake of research within these institutions and would be keen to link up with other universities who are looking to do the same.

We are looking at how best to incorporate into our activities support for researchers who have much to offer outside the UK, as well as in it – and to learn from their experience. We need to be aware of the key differences in terms of the contexts and needs of policymakers internationally, and international institutions, as well as for our researchers with an international aspiration.

Nottingham’s Institute for Policy and Engagement is holding an ‘Engaging with Policy in the Global South Conference’ on 24 March 2020. It will be a fantastic opportunity to bring together learning from researchers and from practitioners on research engagement with policy, and research uptake internationally.

Eleanor Bayley has recently joined the University of Oxford as Deputy Head of Policy Engagement following a career in the international development sector where she worked as a consultant on public administration reform. She has also worked on behalf of the UK Parliament designing and delivering parliamentary strengthening programmes internationally.

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