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Juliet Jopson, Abi Rowson

21 June 2024, 8:58 UTC Share

UPEN Conference 2024 – ARI discussion session blog 

In this blog, Juliet Jopson, Public Policy Engagement Manager at Policy Leeds and Abi Rowson, Joint Acting Head of Interdisciplinary Research at the Horizons Institute, University of Leeds share their learnings from the ARI session discussion at the UPEN 2024 Conference.

Capturing the Areas of Research Interest zeitgeist  

Areas of Research Interest, or ARI, were first developed in response to the 2015 Nurse review of Research Councils as a way for Government departments to improve their dialogue with researchers. Since then ARI have been picked up by other public bodies interested in increasing their research engagement. As part of the UPEN 2024 Conference, we led a discussion session to ask what we could learn from all this activity. Here we share some of the key points to emerge. 

The number of policy bodies using Areas of Research Interest is increasing 

There has been a bit of an explosion in the numbers of Areas of Research Interest (ARI) being published. Alongside the UK Government main Ministerial departments (excepting HM Treasury and Revenue & Customs), the Areas of Research Interest page now lists ARIs from non-Ministerial departments and public bodies. A lot – but not all – of these have been brought together in a searchable database, which also includes ARI from organisations such as the Metropolitan Police and Office for Statistics Regulation.  

Similarly, Parliament has been getting in on the act with ARIs being published by UK Parliament’s Select Committees and Senedd Cymru Committees, and the Scottish Parliament is also talking in these terms. As yet the devolved governments have not picked up on ARI.  

At the University of Leeds, we have been working with Leeds City Council to develop the Leeds City Council ARIs to support more strategic engagement between the Council the research expertise at our own and other Universities in the region. Other Universities and Councils are trying similar approaches across the country, tailoring to their situations. 

Areas of Research Interest come in different shapes and sizes  

Looking across all of these different ARIs it becomes clear that, rather than being one thing, there are different models for developing ARI and their ultimate shape.  

The UK Government department ARIs ask academics to respond to lists of questions.  Whilst guidance on putting together ARI is available from GO-Science, there is inevitably variation in how departments approach and engage with the process. The time taken for departmental sign off makes it hard for departments to keep their ARI up to date and be responsive to emerging needs, with ARI only being updated every couple of years or more.  

The Parliamentary Select Committees generally focus on nearer-term needs and use their ARI more proactively to identify experts relevant to expected upcoming work; this enables them to reach out quickly when needed. It was highlighted that the DCMS College of Experts fulfils a similar function and might provide an alternative model for Parliament, other Government departments, and may also be of interest to local and regional authorities.  

Local government is now starting to think in terms of ARI but so far appear to be taking a more tailored approach, working with local partners. This may be reflective of the tight resource constraint that Councils find themselves in, not having either the equivalent of GO-Science to support them with the process or budget to commission research. As a result ARIs at local authority level may be constrained by the capacity of Councils and local partners to develop ARIs, find funding to deliver on them, and translate findings into policy. 

It was also noted that not all research needs are communicated under the label of ‘Areas of Research Interest’, for instance, Local Integrated Care Systems will often share list of their priority areas which researchers can use to initiate conversations in a similar way to ARI.  

Areas of Research Interest favour the slow lane 

The typically fast-paced world of policy can seem at odds to the infrequency that many of the ARI are refreshed. Two different types of questions were identified, central to the narrative around ARI, but which show how critical timescales are in understanding the research-policy nexus: 

  • What do we already know? 
  • What new evidence is needed? 

ARIs are often espoused as addressing both of these questions, encouraging researchers to share knowledge that already exists, and also to develop new research addressing evidence gaps. However, the experience in the room – and certainly our own from the Leeds City Council ARIs – suggests that ARIs are more effective at stimulating discussions on new research than surfacing existing knowledge. This may be different for the Parliamentary Select Committee ARI which, as noted above, operate on a slightly different model. 

With the Leeds City Council ARI, the focus is now more on longer-term strategic questions and we will seek other ways to address the Council’s more immediate knowledge needs. Researchers are already familiar with Parliamentary and Government calls for evidence, and the What Work Centres collates evidence for public services, so using similar approaches may be more effective than ARI to draw out existing knowledge within a short timescale. 

Researchers engage with ARI in different ways 

Whilst Areas of Research Interest are clearly catching on amongst policy bodies, a lot of researchers still aren’t familiar with them as a route to engagement. 

ARI can be seen as a shopping list rather than an invitation for a conversation. This can lead to tokenistic use of ARIs, with mention of them being peppered into grant applications without any direct engagement with the policy body to ensure meaningful alignment. This was certainly something we encountered with the projects submitted against the first iteration of the Leeds City Council ARIs, leading us to specify in the next round that projects needed to be co-produced. 

There can also be an expectation from some that ARI should be ‘project ready’, and that cross-cutting themes should be set out both within or across organisational ARIs. This both puts all the burden on the policy organisation to create research-relevant ARI and also misses the opportunity for researchers to shape the conversation and convene across policy bodies. As more local and combined authorities join the ARI community, there is also potential for researchers to act as a bridge between national and local levels. 

It was suggested that ARIs should be more positively viewed as a launch pad to build an integrated knowledge exchange programme, where a range of activities such as placements, collaborative projects, or seminar series support regular contact and conversation. 

Areas of Research Interest can be a bit of a black box 

Despite ARIs ultimately aiming to improve communication between policy professionals and researchers, they can still be a bit of a black box. 

It was felt that policymakers need to be clearer about order of importance of the questions, timescales, and what they want to achieve in order to better manage expectation. Similarly, as part of our work with Leeds City Council, researchers fed back that framing the ARI around the outcomes the Council was seeking to achieve would make it easier to design effective research projects. 

It was also noted that the lack of context for many ARIs can put researchers off from engaging as they don’t have a shared sense of purpose and worry they would be lending support to something politically controversial.  

At the other end of the equation, provision of research and evidence can be met with little or no follow up or feedback making it hard to establish engagement or know if it was useful. Relationship building is meant to be at the heart of ARI but policy colleagues may not be able to engage if they are buried under more immediate deadlines. Furthermore, Civil Service churn makes it hard to sustain relationships. 

The role for Universities and UPEN  

There is a wealth of opportunities for researchers, knowledge exchange professionals, and UPEN to support with the development and uptake of ARI. 

We can use our convening power to avoid overwhelming policy partners as interest in ARIs grows, instead drawing together the relevant people from across Universities for high quality conversations. Knowledge exchange professionals in particular have a role to play to improve the quality of engagements and manage expectation on both sides. 

We should also be looking to connect up ARIs. This includes reaching across silos between Government departments and public bodies, and across national, regional and local levels. In addition, we should connect up to form communities of practice, so we can learn from each other as we expand ARIs into new contexts.  

Learning what works will also require proper evaluation of ARI as a mechanism, something that Universities are well placed to help evidence. 

And we all have a role to play to ensure that ARIs meet their inclusivity aims and increase the diversity of researchers and research evidence engaging with policy bodies. This includes supporting development of the pipeline of researchers engaging with ARI, ensuring they have both the capability and capacity. In addition, more thought is needed about how we include communities in conversations around ARI so that research and policy solutions are ultimately designed to deliver the most positive impact for people and places. 

Our thanks to all the UPEN conference participants who contributed their expertise and experience to the discussion session on ARI. In addition, particular thanks to our notetakers Bridget Sealey and Alexia MacDonald, without whom we wouldn’t have been able to capture as much of the conversation.

Juliet Jopson is Public Policy Engagement Manager at Policy Leeds, and Abi Rowson is Joint Acting Head of Interdisciplinary Research at the Horizons Institute, both at the University of Leeds. Find out more about how we have been working with Leeds City Council on ARI

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