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Stephen Meek, UPEN Chair 2018-19

20 March 2020, 8:30 UTC Share

UPEN shares experiences of engaging with UK Government Areas of Research Interest

This week, the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) publishes its first report, looking at how universities can use the “Areas of Research Interest” statements published by UK government Departments to strengthen the evidence base for policy decision making.

Good policy is built on good evidence. Evidence isn’t the only factor, of course. Good policy requires an understanding of how to deliver, for example. But the best policy draws on up to date research, evidence and analysis from across all disciplines, rather than relying on received wisdom or a narrow evidence base.

UPEN was formed in 2018 to harness the collective research power and expertise of our member universities, and to make it easier for policymakers to draw on it to improve policy. UPEN’s membership now stretches to every corner of the country, comprising nearly half of all universities in the UK. Our members consist of the knowledge exchange brokers at our represented institutions. Our membership is entirely voluntary.

Areas of Research Interest (ARI) were developed in response to Professor Sir Paul Nurse’s review of research councils in 2014. They are a way for government departments to communicate to researchers in universities and elsewhere the strategic research questions to which they need answers in the short to medium term.

This is a simple but important development: in the past, departments either assumed that it was obvious what questions they were wrestling with, or were worried that by setting out what they didn’t know then people would know they didn’t know it. Either way, the end product was often frustration on both sides that researchers hadn’t intuited what it was that Government needed. And more importantly, policy wasn’t as good as it could have been.

Almost all government departments have published a first ARI statement. This is a great step forward, even though the quality is uneven, as is the extent to which they are a core part of departmental thinking.

Led by Neil Heckels of Durham University and informed by insight from UPEN members, our work offers ideas for how to build on progress to date, and how to ensure that ARI are useful and become embedded as part of the research landscape.

First, that ARI are an important bridge between demand and supply, and can help shape longer term research programmes as well as match current research to immediate questions.

Second, that they are the start of a conversation, not an end in themselves, and that the conversation should include refining and shaping the question.

Third, that framing the conversation requires careful work: ARI cover large and diverse research areas and engagement could rapidly become unwieldy. This is an area for experiment using different formats and mechanisms.

Fourth, that financial and other incentives need to be aligned to recognise and reward engagement with ARI. This is an issue for funding bodies, for universities, and also for government departments who often assume that there is no opportunity cost to engagement.

And finally, that it is vital to look cross-departmentally as well as across disciplines. ARI provide a means to identify where bits of government are looking at the same issue through different and disconnected lenses.

ARI are a really positive development that should help develop a better evidence base for government by giving researchers a clearer insight into the questions with which it is wrestling. They aren’t perfect, and they aren’t a silver bullet. They will take time to refine, and it will take effort and experiment to frame the engagements that follow. But we believe it is worth government, and universities and funders, to continue to invest in them.

Stephen Meek is Chair of UPEN and is Director of the Institute of Policy and Engagement at the University of Nottingham.

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