Professor Bhaskar Vira: Case Study

Professor of Political Economy, and Head of Department at Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

Meeting CSaP Policy Fellows and attending Policy Workshops has given me access to a network that is not usually available to academics.

My research focuses on political economy issues related to natural capital, biodiversity and development that have inherent policy implications. Some of my projects engage key stakeholders at the local level while others, such as global reviews, target the UN. Over the course of my twenty years in Cambridge, the landscape has evolved significantly. Impact has more recently become an important part of the agenda, so projects are required to consider policy engagement strategies from their inception.

It is very difficult to break the barriers between academic and policy circles and CSaP is able to broker these relationships by ensuring trust and credibility; Fellows feel it is a safe space and academics feel it is worth investing their time. For instance, my first deep engagement with the Chief Economist in Defra – John Curnow – was through a CSaP workshop, and I am now on his economic advisory panel.

I have also collaborated with CSaP on two large research grants to explore policy-related activities concurrently with my research. When Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) put out a call for reflections on the impact pathway for academic research, I was keen to draw CSaP into the grant. With domain expertise and specialist knowledge, CSaP certainly added to the credibility of the proposal. Populating a framework for research into use with specific case studies of where academic research had, in the field of ecosystem services, led to policy impact, the project culminated in a meeting with key ESPA funding stakeholders in London. Conducted at a time before ESPA had its own impact officers and strategy, this work likely shaped their engagement strategy for the remainder of the programme.

Currently, CSaP is involved in a Global Challenges Research Fund project: Transforming India’s Green Revolution for Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies (TIGR2ESS). We wanted to draw on as much of the Cambridge network and assets as possible for this ambitious work, and CSaP was integral to this mission. CSaP has had to explore new avenues through the India-focused programme, but this has allowed CSaP to transfer and adapt its model to an international context.

Reflecting on these opportunities to spend time with people whose full-time jobs are formulating and implementing policy, I have learned both about the constraints under which they operate and how to package a message in a way that engages them and enables them to respond. Gaining this understanding of, and empathy for, the policy community through CSaP has improved my approach to independent policy engagements.