How do you foster meaningful exchanges between academia and government?
Reported by Will Gaby-Bird, Policy Fellowships Coordinator
Magda Osman, CSaP’s Head of Research and Analysis, led a discussion at our Annual Conference earlier this month on how government and academia could improve the way they frame policy questions or position research to make it more accessible to each other.
Joining Magda were fellow panellists: Carrie Heitmeyer, Head of Social Science at GO-Science and Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics; Vanna Aldin, Deputy Director of Business Strategy and Analysis and co-Chief Economist at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP); and Alex Tasker, Senior Lecturer at Bristol University and ESRC Policy Fellow in International Relations.
Magda opened the session with a discussion on her research to illustrate how inquiries are currently made in policy-academia engagement. Explaining the results of her work – which looked at a data set of over 2,000 policy questions – she noted that policy makers typically sought direct applications of research to address practical problems, whereas researchers were more often concerned with understanding the mechanics of the issue. This misalignment between government and academia was exacerbated by the fact that both sides failed to position their questions or research in a way that was accessible, clear, or even visible to the other.
She continued by noting that although academia incentivises the publication of research in journals, this was insufficient in terms of reaching out to policy makers as most government departments do not pay for journal subscriptions. Magda also noted that Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) generated by the government were dependent on academics checking government websites, and do not provide nearly enough context on the department’s needs – including how much detail is required, whether the question is soliciting explanations or solutions, and what the time scales are.
Arguing that these approaches were static and one directional – easy to implement but ineffective at fostering meaningful exchanges – Magda explained that the only solution to this impasse was a paradigm shift towards cultivating dynamic and iterative exchanges. She suggested that, although hard to implement, this paradigm shift should be based on establishing a common ground to allow for bi-directional exchanges in order to prevent misalignment.
Reflecting on why these dynamic exchanges were so difficult to put into practice, Carrie Heitmeyer and Vanna Aldin highlighted three key obstacles. Firstly, the enormous diversity and wealth of academic expertise make it difficult for government to consult the right balance in the diversity of thought, discipline, and background; secondly, academics and government usually come to the table with different expectations and timescales; thirdly, translating academic research into policy is extremely laboursome.
The panel members also highlighted the underappreciated role of knowledge brokers in addressing these obstacles, particularly given that there was no central conduit of knowledge exchange in government. Moreover, they agreed that the ability of knowledge brokers to coordinate the cross-pollination of ideas has the potential to ensure government has access to a diverse set of expertise and to shoulder some of the labour in translating and mediating between the two spheres. Additionally, as highlighted by Alex Tasker, successful brokerage should be viewed as a petri dish that also draws upon reservoirs of learning and expertise from both academia and within government, not as a pipeline from academia to government.
The seminar provoked a lively response from the audience, with questions related to whether paid consultants and third parties should play a role in distilling academic research for policy makers. In response to this question, Alex Tasker argued that although the financially transactional nature of these relationships made them easier to implement, those relationships also threatened to flatten academic nuance.
Following the questions, Vanna Aldin clarified that government should not be viewed as a monolith and that different government departments varied in their ability to engage with academia. On the other hand, the panellists also noted and agreed that institutional memory varied within government, with some departments retaining and dispersing knowledge far better than others.
As the discussion concluded, the panel members highlighted how exchanges between academia and government hinged upon the cultivation of iterative and dynamic exchanges and urged each side to think about how they might position themselves to be more accessible to the other.
You can listen to the session recording here:
6 June 2023, 10am
2023 CSaP Annual Conference: Science, evidence and public policy – the role of research in policymaking
CSaP's 2023 Annual Conference will cover topics such as economic growth and productivity; innovation and societal challenges; learning lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic; behaviour change in health; climate & resilience; and decarbonisation and energy transition.