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Phil Ward

19 November 2021, 2:29 UTC Share

The importance of underlying evidence for policy engagement

Before we engage actively with policymakers and politicians, we need to understand our own position. What’s our starting point? How have contemporary issues and events affected our work? What policies are needed to ameliorate the bad and reinforce the good?

No contemporary event has had a larger impact than the Covid pandemic, yet many of us only have an anecdotal sense of how it has affected our universities and institutions, the people who work in them and the students who study in them.

Over the past 18 months the Eastern Arc universities of East Anglia Essex and Kent have undertaken staff surveys that have, in part, provided evidence of the effects of the pandemic for those on the ground. For many, the pandemic has meant that their research has had to be altered, adapted, curtailed or postponed.

Of those who responded to our surveys, the majority (ranging from 54 to 67 per cent) had experienced a significant drop in research productivity due to different aspects of the pandemic. The results reflected the three broad causes of this, and the degree to which it had done so.

  • The importance of focussing on students: when the pandemic first broke, our academics quickly recognised the need to prioritise the education of their students. As a result, much of their own research was put on hold while they adapted to the new online or blended model of delivery, or responded to the concerns and questions of the students. At UEA and Essex, around a third of respondents (33 per cent and 29 per cent respectively) reported that their work had been affected by this, and over half (53 per cent) of those at Kent said that their work had been affected to a ‘great’ or ‘extreme’ extent.
  • The need to work within imposed limits to access and travel: with the restrictions of lockdown, investigators at all three universities reported that they were not able to access essential labs or resources, could not travel nor see collaborators. A similar percentage of respondents at each university had been affected by this: 34 per cent at UEA, 35 per cent at Essex, and 37 per cent at Kent.
  • The necessity of responding to changes at home: the need to adapt to their changing personal circumstances also affected our academics, as it did many of those working from home across the country. Additional caring responsibilities and/or coping with personal illness affected 15 per cent of respondents at UEA and 24 per cent at Essex; at Kent 29 per cent were affected ‘to an extreme extent’.

‘Homeschooling means that I am now working effectively part-time,’ suggested one respondent at Kent. ‘I now start working at 5am, then spend half the day teaching my children and then try and work five hours in the afternoon. In the evenings I am usually too tired and need to catch up on housework and prepping teaching for the next day. I have a number of research deadlines…and it is going to be a real struggle to meet them. I simply do not have the time to produce new work.’

This experience is representative of many of the comments we received. As new cases of Covid-19 start to rise again, we need to learn from the experience of the first and second waves, and ensure that we do everything we can to lessen the impact on our research and teaching.

At the same time we need to make sure that national policies – of both government and funding agencies – are supportive of ongoing research efforts, and ensure that it is protected from the worst effects of the pandemic. After all, much current government policy is focussed on the role research and innovation will play in our future economic and social prosperity. The recent Net Zero Strategy , for instance, mentions research 107 times and innovation 248 times.

Good policy-making is based on a foundation of real and robust knowledge, and I hope that the Eastern Arc surveys will be a part of this. Gathering such evidence may not seem like an immediate manifestation of policy engagement, but without it your voice will be weaker and your case less compelling. With so many other voices raised and so many other causes championed, it’s never been more important to strengthen your own.

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