Provost's View: How UCL engages with government and parliament
9 March 2017
The UK faces its greatest public policy challenge for decades as a consequence of our forthcoming exit from the European Union and its likely aftermath.
Two key factors further complicate the situation.
First, our exit will happen at a time during which other policy challenges will also be significant - including domestic issues around adequate funding for social care, the future of the NHS, the availability of housing and school funding, as well as 'grand challenges' around inequality, climate change and the impact of new technology. The policy landscape could not be more complex.
Second, a new challenge has emerged from the tumultuous events of last year and their continued reverberations. Michael Gove's comment during the referendum campaign that the public had had "enough of experts" has created a climate of distrust, while a "post-truth" environment is being built on "alternative facts", often otherwise known frankly as nothing more than lies.
This has created greater complexity for the ways in which we, as academic experts, are engaging with people beyond the university.
To be portrayed as one faction of an establishment 'elite' talking to another is a profound misrepresentation of both the academic endeavour and of so much of the dedicated work of our staff and students with community groups, business representatives, charities and other external organisations.
The challenge to all of us is to ensure that our expertise is not only evidence-based, but also presented effectively in an open and unbiased way. We must also strive to inform thinking about the major societal challenges of the day that are of direct relevance to people's everyday lives.
Through these mechanisms we must work to rebuild public confidence in the value of academic expertise.
'Research for policy' and 'policy for research'
So the question of how UCL engages with government, parliament and other policy professionals and stakeholders is more pressing than ever.
This is what we call a 'research for policy' agenda in which we seek to ensure that the full breadth and potential of UCL research can engage with public policy wherever relevant. This may be contrasted with our contribution to a 'policy for research' agenda in which we seek to influence national research policy and funding.
Of course, 'policy for research' is of great importance to UCL, particularly in the context of continued uncertainties around the future mobility of staff and students, and access to EU research funding and research collaboration following Brexit.
We have been active in responding to some of the many parliamentary select committee inquiries on the impact of Brexit - and, indeed, recently hosted an evidence session of the Education Select Committee on this topic, at which I gave evidence.
There have, in addition, been many discussions with parliamentarians, with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and others in government, not least through Professor Graeme Reid's membership of a new Stakeholder Working Group on Brexit.
We have also contributed to the thinking of other sector bodies, including Universities UK, the Russell Group, Research Councils and the Campaign for Science & Engineering.
Building on our record of achievement
Turning now to UCL's 'research for policy' agenda, we are building on our considerable track record of engagement by individual academics and researchers with policymakers, which has led to some significant impacts on policy and legislation, as well as helping to build our relationships outside the university.
We are well placed to do so by virtue of the breadth of our experience and our London location, but perhaps most importantly, because of the dedication of our researchers who want their work to change and improve the world around us - a key aspiration of our institutional strategy, UCL 2034.
Our policy engagement is underpinned by UCL's collective experience and ability to convene academics from across many disciplines to address policy questions in their full complexity. We are also responding to an increasing policy appetite for research and evidence addressing societal problems.
UCL is cognisant of the importance of building and sustaining wide networks to underpin engagement and to maximise the 'right person, right place, right time' opportunities that deliver real impact.
We have developed a distinctive 'expert-to-expert' approach (in contrast to the 'policy institutes' of some universities), which helps to connect individual researchers, groups, departments and faculties directly with those policymakers who can benefit from their knowledge.
To support all of this more effectively, UCL Public Policy is our strategic programme to help coordinate and amplify existing activity, as well as to stimulate new routes and mechanisms for engagement that can underpin the co-development of research with policy stakeholders.
Led by Prof David Price's Office of the Vice-Provost (Research), it is supported and informed by the UCL Public Policy Board, with a senior representative from each faculty, which helps to improve our picture of UCL's strengths, augment activity and to identify opportunities to further enhance UCL's policy impact.
Two faculties - UCL Bartlett and Engineering - have created Vice-Deans (Public Policy) who are leading work to further develop their faculty's strategies on policy engagement and impact.
UCL Public Policy has helped to develop strategic relationships with government departments and agencies, including BEIS, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, the Department of Health, the Department for Transport, the Government Office for Science, Public Health England and the Food Standards Agency; with select committees and other parliamentary offices; and with other bodies such as Wellcome and the Royal Society.
Engaging with UCL Public Policy
These links add to those many strategic relationships that have already been built by individual researchers, thus establishing us as an effective partner and source of expertise, and increasing opportunities for UCL research to inform policy.
UCL Public Policy manages activities including a policy placements scheme that provides opportunities for researchers to directly impact upon policy and a small grants scheme, policy roundtables and workshops with academics and policy stakeholders to discuss topical policy challenges.
We also facilitate bespoke policy clinics held with policymakers to obtain academic input on specific problems, 'Research Insights' briefings summarising UCL research activity on topical issues, a public events series and ambitious 'policy commission' projects.
More details on all of these can be found on the UCL Public Policy website along with advice and guidance on policy engagement and contact details; you can also subscribe to the UCL Public Policy newsletter.
I encourage all staff with an interest in engaging more with policymakers to get in touch to find out how you might get more involved in these activities - and to contact your faculty Public Policy Board representatives to find out about your faculty's approach.
There remain many barriers to policy engagement, not least practical obstacles (such as different timescales and limited capacity), cultural differences (varying priorities and incentives) and limited knowledge and understanding on both sides, including a lack of transparency in policy processes and decision-making.
UCL recognises these continuing challenges, but we are addressing them through the activities of UCL Public Policy, the engagement of faculties and staff, and - most importantly - the commitment of our academics and researchers.
There is no 'science' of policy engagement. It is a complex, often diffuse and obscure process which requires creativity, persistence and the tolerance of failure, but I am delighted to see so many members of our community taking up this challenge and making a real difference to the world.
Professor Michael Arthur, President &
Sarah Chaytor, Director of Research Strategy & Policy