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Why engage with policy professionals?

STEP 1

 Academic research offers a depth and richness which is normally unavailable to policymakers. Policymaking is an extraordinarily complex process and research can control some of the variables.

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In this step...

What do you need to know?

What do you need to do?

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

Why is it worth investing your time?

Policy engagement

There are lots of reasons why it is worth investing time in policy engagement but they can be broadly clustered in terms of who they help. Taking this approach would largely result in three clusters of answers:

1. Helping Scholars

Policy engagement is not all about REF and impact but it is also about REF and impact. Of course it is true that for many disciplines, notably in the social sciences, working with policy professionals can provide a valuable route to impact for their research. However, other benefits would include:

Benefits for scholars

Subjects for research​

Policymakers have have questions to answer and the data needed to answer them

A virtuous circle

Interacting with policy provides a refining process for research conclusions and allows opportunities to gain insights from practitioners.

Intellectual rigour

There can be fewer places to hide in a 2-page briefing for a specialist but non-academic audience than in a 9000 word article for other scholars, which can provide a useful intellectual discipline.

Privileged access

Policy development is interesting and challenging (and really, really complicated). Academics can have privileged access to this world because of the insights their scholarship provides

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2. Helping the policymaker

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Academic research covers a bewildering array of questions, many of which may have policy implications but the research is rarely intended explicitly for a policy audience. Much of the work of policy engagement involves efforts to square that circle. But why are policy professionals in government and elsewhere interested in what academics have to say?

Benefits for policymakers

More researchers than policy professionals

There are simply far, far more researchers in universities than in governments, parliaments and other policy institutions. As a result, their work is vastly more fine-grained. A researcher working in policy might have a brief covering ‘the environment’, ‘trade’ or ‘health’, possibly as part of a small team.

Longer deadlines

Policy officials are also working to much tighter deadlines than is usually the case for academics. As a result academic research offers a depth and richness which is normally unavailable to policymakers.

Extra time

Scholars often devote decades to a particular question, meaning they can build up an extraordinary depth of understanding. Approached in the right way, this offers policymakers valuable and original insights.

Less pressures

Academics are detached from the everyday pressures of politics, which allows them a perspective rarely granted to those working within policy. This can reframe old questions in new ways, provide perspectives from fresh vantage points and breakthrough entrenched positions.

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3. Helping the public

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There are many good reasons to think that research-informed policy is simply better policy. Policymaking is an extraordinarily complex process and research can control some of the variables. Academics can provide new ways of thinking about problems, international and historical context, as well as access to extensive data and rigorous analytical tools.

Benefits for the public

Learning from the past

Historical and comparative experience can inform policy discussion, highlighting past errors and identifying solutions that have worked in similar situations. Doing so not only saves money but can help ensure that citizens are not subjected to poorly-constructed policy solutions.

New tools

Scholarly analysis can be a valuable tool in assessing whether particular policy solutions achieved their intended aims. Doing so helps the public assess the records of administrations at all levels of government and increases their accountability to the public.

Fresh solutions

The application of evidence and rigorous intellectual tools can help refashion policy debates that may have been framed in the same way for many years - sometimes for decades. Doing so can offer fresh solutions, and present new options to communities across Scotland.​

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What will be the impact of my engagement?

Obviously, it depends on the exact nature of your engagement but in all likelihood it will be fairly limited. 

Difficulties

Policy is shaped by a huge number of pressures and there are many voices demanding attention at any given time. The loudest of those voices tend to be various interest groups - industry bodies, regional groupings, charities working in that area and so on.

When it works

Academics, and the research they bring to the table, do not provide the same kind of evidence as others. It does not (usually) represent their personal or sectoral interest and is, of course, grounded in scholarship. This gives academic voices a privileged position in policy debate but it does not make it the only one.

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WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO?

What will be the impact of my engagement?

Obviously, it depends on the exact nature of your engagement but in all likelihood it will be fairly limited. Policy is shaped by a huge number of pressures and there are many voices demanding attention at any given time. The loudest of those voices tend to be various interest groups – industry bodies, regional groupings, charities working in that area and so on.

Identify your career moment

Let us say that you are Professor of Cabbages at the University of Campus. You have just completed a five-year study, which has just been published in the International Journal of Brassica Studies and you reach out to the clerk of the Scottish Parliament’s Fruit and Vegetable Committee. The conversation might go a little like this: 

Professor of Cabbages

"I have just completed the most comprehensive study ever of the role of cabbages in the alleviation of poverty. I thought you might be interested."

Clerk of the Fruit and Vegetables Commission

"I am indeed interested and would like to hear more. However, I really wish you could have let us know about this earlier. The Cabbages (Alleviation of Poverty) (Scotland) Act completed its parliamentary stages last week and we are unlikely to return to the issue this parliament or for the foreseeable future."

Professor of Cabbages

That is a shame. Woe, I am undone.

This is the sort of issue that people often mean when they talk about the challenges of the different timescales involved in policy and research. This issue is relatively easily addressed by talking to officials at the start of a piece of research, rather than the end. It is genuinely useful to know what research is going on and, in all likelihood, the academic could have worked in confidence to help shape parliamentary consideration of the issue – and without needing to expose her findings in advance of publication. 

Identify the best moment in the policy calendar

A more general issue with regards to timing relates to which issues are in vogue and which are not. The Professor of Cabbages mentioned above could have engaged with policymakers at any time, there isn’t actually a need to wait for legislation. The passage of a new law might provide a focus for the discussion of an issue but it also forces politicians and others to adopt positions that are then difficult to retract. Much of the rest of the time, there is a good deal more light and a great deal less heat. 

In practice this means adding some horizon scanning to your scoping exercise. There are plenty of changes other than legislation that can be informed and improved by robust evidence and rigorous analysis. The parliamentary route may be closed to her in the immediate aftermath of a bill becoming law but in other parts of the policy world, the work is just beginning. 

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Next to: STEP 5