What is SPRE?
The Scottish Policy and Research Exchange is a network of academics and officials working in new ways to expand the evidence base available to policymakers. Much of this involves encouraging and supporting new voices from the academy to engage with policy.
The project is firmly rooted in Scotland and is supported by the Scottish Government and Parliament, Audit Scotland, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Academy of Social Sciences and a growing number of Scottish HEIs. It emerged out of discussions between researchers working both in academia and the policy community about how greater engagement could be encouraged between the two. As a result, the project team is interested in all manner of engagement activities. However, in practice, SPRE’s efforts are currently focussed on two areas:
1) Developing training and mentoring opportunities for early career researchers, primarily but not exclusively in the social sciences.
2) Providing tools in digital and real space that make it easier for researchers and officials to collaborate
Training and Mentoring
Some of SPRE’s activities in this area will simply be providing training, in situ, to early career researchers about how to engage more effectively with the policy process. The focus of these activities is very much on the practical and aims particularly to support researchers from backgrounds, disciplines and demographics that are underrepresented among those working with governments and parliaments.
As well as face-to-face training, we will be rolling out resources in digital space later this year and working with HEIs and other institutions to build their capacity in this area so that training in policy engagement becomes a more mainstream activity within academic development.
Some of these tools are fairly prosaic – a timeline of engagement opportunities and an online ‘one-stop shop’ for secondment and internship opportunities in the policy sector. Others aim to highlight what is already happening, such as a curated blog, newsletter and social media presence.
However, the most exciting work revolves around creating opportunities for new types of collaboration. For example, in the next couple of months we will be offering opportunities for interdisciplinary teams of researchers to work together to address live policy questions identified by civil servants and parliamentary officials.
Why we do it
Ultimately, the motivation for the project is a shared belief that evidence and scholarly analysis matter, and that their application to policy questions can make for better policy. Obviously, that takes place against a backdrop of REF, challenge-led funding, and the impact agenda, as well as debates over what constitutes evidence and the role of expertise in political discourse. As far as possible, SPRE recognises those professional ralities and tailors its activities accordingly.
However, all of that is secondary to the underlying belief that scholarship, especially within the social sciences, has an important role to play in finding solutions to some of Scotland’s thornier policy problems.
Since the start of the year, SPRE has hired a director and completed the first phase of its website build. Most of the tools mentioned above will be rolled over the course of this year and we expect the interdisciplinary policy working groups to be piloted over the summer and into the autumn. For further information on these, please sign up to the newsletter.
SPRE is a new project but there is nothing new about scholarship informing policy – not least by storing knowledge inside the heads of graduates and releasing them into the world. However, it can sometimes feel as if contributing to the policy process is the preserve of a chosen few or that policymakers are only interested in hearing from particular disciplines or institutions or methodologies. It is important to be clear that neither of those suppositions is true but the belief that they are has had a significant impact on how the evidence base is gathered and who feels comfortable contributing to it. SPRE should ultimately be judged by the extent to which it addresses that problem and resolves it.