The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how researchers and government working together can solve challenges and improve our lives. We’ve seen this in the funding of vaccine research and the accelerated roll-out of vaccinations but also in subtler ways, such as our understanding of how the pandemic affected public behaviour and mental health.
Equally, improved connections between academia and government help researchers to understand and respond better to the priorities of policymakers.
UK Research and Innovation has always been uniquely well placed to mobilise research expertise to address global and national challenges through the research we fund and our role in connecting across sectors.
How are we going about it?
When I joined the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as director of research last year, I was excited at the opportunity to support new connections between the UK’s researchers and policymakers.
I’d just spent several years working in the Cabinet Office and No.10. I’d seen first-hand the immense contribution that findings from academic research had made to the UK’s pandemic response, frontline policing practices, the provision of family support services, and so many other areas of policy and public service delivery.
So, how are we going about it? There’s a huge amount of activity underway. But for me, there are a few recent initiatives that really stand out.
There’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in the day-to-day operations of a government department to understand policymaking and how you can influence it.
ESRC launched a policy fellowship programme in 2021 that’s seen more than 20 academics join the UK, Scottish, and Welsh governments on 18-month placements.
They’re working in policy areas as diverse as COVID-19 recovery (Department for Transport), national security (Cabinet Office), net zero (Defra), and health inequalities (Scottish Government).
Once in government, these fellows have a unique opportunity to build networks and share their expertise and insights with those who can put them to good use.
Dr Robin Lovelace, based at the University of Leeds, joined 10 Downing Street as an ESRC-funded data science fellow last year. He’s quickly made an impact.
As part of his fellowship, he’s now taking on an exciting new role as Interim Director of Data and Analysis for Active Travel England, the government agency responsible for making it easier and safer to walk, wheel, or cycle around England.
There’ll be a new round of policy fellowships in 2023.
Actionable Insights seminars
A lot of research we fund, in areas such as productivity, growth, and net zero, does not neatly map on to the remit of any single government department. Nor should it.
But it means there are no easy routes for us to support these researchers in working with the diverse network of decision-makers across government who might be interested in their work.
ESRC’s Actionable Insights seminar series is one of my favourite ways to tackle this.
It began life during the pandemic. We were looking for ways of making sure emerging insights from our COVID-19 research reached the right decision-makers at the right time.
So, we teamed up with the Government Social Research Profession to run a series of cross-government seminars that allowed researchers to speak directly to policy professionals and analysts.
Collectively, these seminars have allowed researchers to connect with thousands of civil and public servants across 66 UK departments, agencies, and public bodies as well as the devolved administrations.
They’ve been so successful that we’ve extended the series to cover a broader range of pressing issues. This includes seminars on energy security, the cost-of-living crisis, and settling refugees from Ukraine.
Our collaborations with Parliament are another fantastic way to connect research with government.
We’ve partnered with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) on various projects over the years. And we’ve just collaborated on the launch of a network of Parliamentary Thematic Research Leads.
These research leads will be academics who we hope will play a similar role to the chief scientific advisers that we see in most government departments (many of whom are also academics). They will be appointed in specific thematic areas, including the environment and national security.
They’ll work with select committee staff as well as POST and the House of Commons Library to feed research evidence into scrutiny, legislation and debate.
So what’s next?
We’ll continue to innovate and test new approaches. Take our new national capability for behavioural research, for instance. The research organisations setting up our new behavioural research hub and centre for doctoral training will be able to embed posts in the Government Office for Science and Government Skills and Curriculum Unit. This will help accelerate the exchange of insights and people between the research community and government.
Top image: Credit: UK Research and Innovation