Working with academia

19 August 2022


Working with academia

Reported by Nick Cosstick, Policy Researcher, Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP)

CSaP partnered with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s (Dstl) Defence Science and Technology Futures (DSTF) programme for a project on the current state of their academic engagement, and how it could be improved. The project consisted of an evidence review and two workshops.

The evidence review was comprised of a review of the relevant literature on engagement between academia and Defence––and, more broadly, the rest of government and industry––and evidence attained from a series of targeted interviews conducted with key experts on engagement. Its first area of focus was the various forms that government-academia engagement generally––and defence-academia engagement more specifically––takes. For example, the distinction was drawn between institutional networks––such as Defra’s ‘expert network’––and the personal networks of policy professionals, with case studies of each. The second area of focus was the barriers which stand in the way of effective government-academia engagement, along with any proposed solutions, or mitigating factors, to them. For example, some academics express ethical concerns about working with Defence. Several persuasive strategies have been developed to help academics overcome this anxiety, such as emphasising that defence capabilities are a necessary part of any successful state, and are required to save lives.

The third area of focus was on the lessons which Defence-academia engagement might draw from industry-academia engagement. For example, academics routinely engage with industry to create ‘strategic roadmaps’: plans of the process which will take a person/company/organisation from their present position to their desired position. Strategic road mapping also holds promise as a policy tool. Finally, in light of the collated evidence, some considerations and recommendations were offered. For example, to ensure that the research informing ‘areas of research interest’ is relevant, and can generate impact, one recommendation was the development of a set of ‘use cases’: realistic descriptions of the process of generating the academic engagement model and implementing it.

The first workshop was held in Cambridge on 24 March 2022. Its purpose was to build upon the evidence review, by bringing Dstl employees together with academics and engagement experts, to generate solutions to real-world academic engagement problems. Attendees were split into five groups. Group 1 focused on how academic engagement might be used to help deliver horizon scanning and technology watch. Group 2 considered how to quickly identify the required expertise in new topics/areas previously unknown to defence and get initial advice. Group 3 focused on how to organise academic engagement in contexts which require quick access to expertise. Group 4’s problem was understanding how diverse science and technology disciplines might be brought together for maximum effect–– with a focus upon fuller ‘system-level’ thinking regarding risks and opportunities. Group 5 focused on how to improve the process of building and maintaining ‘capability’: the research expertise developed by Dstl’s investment in studentships and commissioned research. Each group developed a small set of recommendations for solving their problem. These suggestions were then taken away by Dstl staff and considered for implementation.

The second workshop was held in Cambridge on 4 July 2022. Its focus was on improving DSTF’s processes, with the help of process specialists from DSTF, academia, research institutes, and industry. Attendees were split into four groups, each of which focused on a DSTF process. Each group utilised their expertise to generate a small set of suggestions for improving their assigned process. As with the first workshop, these suggestions were taken away by DSTF’s process owners and considered for implementation.