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Academia and policy: It’s more than a one-way street

30 June 2015

 by Angela Watkins, Evidence Advisor at the Welsh Government

I recently attended a symposium in London, co-organised by the British Ecological Society and the Zoological Society of London. It was full of very keen academics – PhD students, early career and more established researchers. It also had a packed programme with academics and NGO’s putting forward thoughts, opinions and recommendations on how to get science heard by policy-and decision-makers. It had a great venue. It had some really good audience questions. But it was missing one fundamental thing. Aside from myself and one other colleague from Government, it didn’t have the very people who are supposed to be the receivers of this great body of science – the policy-makers.

It was quite disappointing to be in the minority, as a truly effective partnership requires involvement and commitment from both sides. The challenge here for policymakers is to find the time to engage. But I was also disappointed to learn that the day was to focus on how researchers could (and should) influence policy.

Is this the key question for researchers – here’s my work, now how can I get policy-makers to listen to me?

This is a critical issue for my role in government. There are lots of existing ways in which a one-way process like this can work through researchers influencing policy during consultations or when giving evidence at committee briefings, for example. However, we consider there to be more benefits in developing a community, a partnership, a 2-way relationship that allows us to work with you to find out what we need, what you already know, and to articulate our needs in a way that resonates with you as a research community but that is also specific and informative enough to help us make decisions and inform our ministers. As Carwyn Jones, our First Minister, stated in a presentation to civil servants in 2011:

For me, real value is about being absolutely focused on the outcomes we are achieving out there in the real world…Tell us the facts and set out the evidence that underpins the options

In Government we want to be able to help shape the questions that are being asked.We want the evidence, we want the advice, but we want it, we need it to be directed to the questions we have agreed are most relevant. Retro-fitting research outputs may not be the most useful option. Now that’s not to say that we don’t care about research that has already been done. We do. And we know that we need to make better and more effective use of existing research and grey literature. But not everyone has the skills and experience, or the time and resources to search through the existing literature to find out what we already know. Sometimes the bigger challenge is realising what it is we don’t know. And this is where we need you, the academic community.

I know that lots of you will already be aware of this. But as a recent PhD graduate myself, my experience tells me that this idea does not get fed through to the young enquiring, enthusiastic and motivated minds that are looking to change the world. In fact, I don’t really remember being introduced to anything related to interacting with policy. It was as if these two entities existed in isolation. We did our science in the research world. And the policy people, well we don’t really know who they are and what they do, but we know they do their policy stuff in the political world.

So how can we make researchers more aware of the policy context, and how can we tie this in with the need for high impact research? Within the Natural Resources Department of Welsh Government, we are trying to bridge this gap between science and policy. We know that important expertise and skills lie within the research community that could help us make informed, appropriate and high impact decisions and we want to make better use of this resource, in a way that brings mutual benefits to us and the research community. One-way that myself and Eleanor Kean from the Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff University are doing this is by setting up a Wales Ecological Science/Policy Group (name still to be determined). Supported by the British Ecological Society, and following on from the recently established and successful Scottish Policy Group, we hope this group will bring researchers interested in ecological research from across Wales together to provide the opportunity to provide training and events that will hopefully develop skills and knowledge of the science-policy interface. We see this as a huge opportunity to collaborate like never before, with the main aims of the group to provide:

  • A directory/network of people interested in discussing science/policy within the conservation and ecology field;
  • An online forum, available for discussion and dissemination;
  • Workshops/events throughout the year, open to group members, but also potentially casting the net further and using group members to engage and encourage others to participate;
  • Events focused on particular subsets of the group – perhaps policy training events for PhD students/early career researchers, developing research questions training for policy-makers, for example.

Also consider that whilst we have intelligent and motivated civil servants, not all of us are technical specialists. So we need evidence outputs that are tailored to our needs, rather than set out in a journal article that may be talking about the right issue, but set in a different context. We need research that is translated to make it accessible, not only for us, but to our ministers. And there is also a broader point to acknowledge: if policy was only based on evidence, we wouldn’t need politicians. Policies are influenced by a wide range of ‘evidence’, only some of which comes from research and a lot of which comes from citizens and public opinion. The diagram below neatly captures some of the factors that can affect the development and evolution of policy:

wg diagram

We do recognise that there may be constraints to making an effective partnership between government and academia. At the recent joint Welsh Government and Sustainable Places Research Institute seminar on ‘how to formulate research questions’, we had a good discussion about some of these:

  1. The potential trade-off between research excellence and research impact;
  2. Good science can take a long time to achieve, but governments quite often need to make quick decisions;
  3. Uncertainty – limitations need to be clearly laid out;
  4. Capacity and capability – how do we access the right specialists? How do we influence where research funding is spent?

We, as the Natural Resources department, are consciously developing our engagement with academia in an effort to stimulate, identify, access and use high quality fit-for-purpose evidence and research. We have a number of models and mechanisms in place where we currently engage with the research community through established researchers, PhD/Masters/undergraduate programmes and student secondments into Welsh Government. Good examples are our close links with Cardiff University through DURESS and the Sustainable Places Research Institute, as well as through our role as associate partners of the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership, but we need the academic community to help us on this journey. Let’s think about how we can make this effective and beneficial for both sides.

For any more information, or to send on comments, thoughts or questions, please contact Angela Watkins on 029 2082 6810 or