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Kathryn Watson

08 December 2021, 2:25 UTC Share

UPEN Report Launch: Meeting the challenge of creating a more inclusive approach to academic-policy engagement

How do academics become involved in engagement with policy makers? Why do some people have close policy connections and others seem to be left out in the cold? Are the right voices represented in policy and evidence-based discussions with Parliaments (Westminster and devolved). A UPEN report launched today looks at the challenge of bringing about positive change for equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in policy engagement. The report, ‘Surfacing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion within Academic-Policy Engagement’ provides evidence from UK Higher Education Institutions, looking at the problem from a knowledge broker perspective and what institutions should be doing to make sure that there are more diverse voices around the table when it comes to influencing policy change.

The structural and systematic inequalities present within UK society are also a feature of the mechanisms underpinning academic policy engagement. In recent years, parliamentary bodies and government (such as the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST)) have been reaching out to universities and institutions across the UK (see also Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy ‘R&D People and Culture Strategy’ ). The aim is to open a discussion about how a broader and more diverse body of researchers can feed into opportunities such as submitting evidence to Select Committees Inquiries or All-Party Parliamentary Groups, providing specialist advice, contributing to a policy briefing or POST-note or responding to government consultations. A UPEN report on Opening Up Parliament indicated that the hybrid (virtual/live) mode of giving research evidence to Parliament opened up opportunities for broadening participation in policy engagement to under-represented groups.

This topic and how to address the challenge has been on the UPEN agenda from before the Covid-19 pandemic. Knowledge Exchange (KE) between academia and public policy has emerged as a significant area of activity over the past decade. This is underpinned by the view that policy that is informed by evidence is stronger, more effective, and provides better value for public spending. UPEN believes it is time to take stock and examine who has been undertaking such engagement and how best to ensure that EDI are taken into consideration. The report provides evidence from a survey in 2020 of UPEN institutional members, completed by knowledge brokers and advisers at the interface between policy and engagement:

  • Very few institutions collect or monitor data on EDI in policy engagement. The main challenges were around what to collect and when to do it and the often informal and fragmented nature of policy engagement activities. Those who do collect data and monitor EDI in this context, tend to do so around career stage. Data collected is often associated with training, event attendance or participation in a scholarship. However, there was considerable interest in improving processes and addressing the challenge of ‘how to do it’.
  • When putting forward academic staff members for policy engagement opportunities, the majority of KE brokers considered REF impact case studies as the number one consideration. This is perhaps not surprising given that the data were collected in the run up to REF2021, but it is clear that the research agenda took priority over developing people who were new to policy engagement.
  • A further important consideration in the selection of the academic was their specialism and area of expertise. However, coupled with the timeliness in which the academic can respond, and their known ability to communicate with policy stakeholders, there is a danger of hierarchies of engagement emerging that result in KE brokers drawing from small pools of ‘usual suspects’. Having up-to-date information on the expertise and interests of individuals can help to counter this.
  • Efforts to take account of both expertise and diversity are hampered by lack of means to establish diversity characteristics and unease about asking for diversity information upfront. There was a broad range of approaches to identify academic experts but few of these had EDI at their centre. It was apparent that there is a lack of clarity about what members could do to bring about positive change for their academic communities.
  • While there was a range of ways which member institutions tried to make their public engagement training offer inclusive and diverse, there was very limited action to try and improve diversity in the allocation of IAA funding although new approaches to communication were being tried out.

In launching the report, the aim of UPEN is to show, firstly, where we are on this EDI journey and secondly, to signal to the policymakers that we regard EDI as being high priority for improving the academic-policy engagement ecosystem. UPEN wants to facilitate a dialogue with key stakeholders and the academic community on enhancing EDI in policy engagement; to engage with its members through workshops, leading to the development of a set of EDI principles; raise awareness to embed a culture of systematic data collections and work with funders to deepen understandings of how reward and incentive structures can promote better EDI. The report puts forward three recommendations to institutional members:

  • Better understand the nature and specificity of the barriers faced in academic-policy engagement by diverse groups in their institutions.
  • Put in place processes to ensure that academic-policy engagement opportunities are open to all and reach as many as possible.
  • Share examples of EDI academic-policy engagement best practice and case studies with UPEN to champion progress in this area.

You can read the report ‘Surfacing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion within Academic-Policy Engagement’ online here and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #SurfacingEDI.

Dr Kathryn Watson manages research impact and external engagement for Leeds University Business School. Her role includes supporting academic staff in achieving impact from their research, much of which relates to policy impact. She contributes to impact strategy and co-ordinates a range of activities relating to impact culture, policy and corporate engagement and training. She founded an event series called ‘Ideas in Practice’ which has facilitated academic-policy-corporate engagement for over five years. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) is central to her goals for delivering a professional service and being part of the UPEN sub-group has given the impetus for thinking about how we should strive to improve access to engagement opportunities. As an academic researcher, Kathryn has worked with a large retailer, the police and a large public sector organisation on EDI strategy and delivery in the workplace.

‘Surfacing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion within Academic-Policy Engagement was developed by Kathryn Watson, Siobhan Morris, Lindsey Pike, Maria Prince, Kayleigh Renberg‐Fawcett and Olivia Stevenson

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