Boosting research impact through policy engagement

Published: 28 February 2019

Helping Newcastle University academics engage in policy making.

It is not enough to produce good content and hope it will be found and understood; instead, audiences, including policymakers, need to be actively engaged.

“Academics live in ivory towers.” “Publicly funded research is only ever read by other researchers.” “Professors are more bothered about getting citations than improving society.”

These are common criticisms facing higher education institutions today. Aside from the debate over tuition fees and student mental health, universities are struggling to demonstrate that the millions of pounds of taxpayer money they receive for research is being used for the public good.

The introduction of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014 brought this challenge into sharp relief. Its requirement for case studies to demonstrate impact beyond academia means that traditional success metrics are no longer enough.

Academics and universities need to find a way to demonstrate that the research conducted within the institution’s walls is a valuable source of creative solutions to societal, economic and environmental challenges. But this is easier said than done. Many potential innovations go unrealised because the academics involved do not know how to promote them to policymakers who could turn the visions into reality.

One institution working hard to change this is Newcastle University. It recognises that it is not enough to produce good content and hope it will be found and understood; instead, audiences, including policymakers, need to be actively engaged. But this is not traditionally part of the training that researchers and academics receive.

So the Policy Academy Fellows Programme was born. Started in 2016, it is a year-long training course for early to mid-career researchers and teaching and professional services staff who are keen to use their work to inform policy. Programme alumni include staff working on a broad range of disciplines, including law, oral health, cultural property protection and rare diseases.

Through the Fellows Programme, staff receive training on the complexity of the policy environment; regional, national and international policy making institutions; the different methods used to help influence policy; and ways to write to attract policy audiences.

Linstock worked with the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement & Internationalisation to develop the Programme, and also delivers two of the training sessions each year:

  • In ‘Introduction to the Policy Environment’ we discuss the difference between the ideal policy making process and the reality, including the variety of factors that impact policymakers’ decision making. We also invite third party speakers who have worked in Westminster and Whitehall to share their stories and highlight how participants can successfully engage policy audiences.
  • In ‘Writing for Policymakers’ we explain how participants can craft effective policy content, which often requires them to ‘unlearn’ traditional academic approaches to writing. We also consider the pros and cons of using the press and social media to influence policy audiences, and invite national journalists to share their experiences and provide tips for participants wanting to increase their media impact.

Now in its third year, the Policy Academy Fellows Programme is going from strength to strength. Previous participants have met with All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), provided capacity support for local and national research networks, secured meetings with influential MPs and civil servants, and included policy related impact in funding bids.

With the deadline for REF 2021 submissions approaching, demonstrating impact will be rising up the agenda for university leaders. Empowering and upskilling academics to build policy engagement into their work will be critical.

Contact us if you’d like to here more about how we can help your team improve their understanding of the policy environment.

Jo Nussbaum

Associate Director

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