QPol: Policy engagement at Queen’s
Effective engagement and sharing of research findings between policymakers and academics can bring significant benefits for all parties involved.
Effective engagement and knowledge exchange between policymakers and academics can bring significant benefits for all parties. The major challenges facing us regionally, nationally and globally are increasingly complex and interlinked, and prospective policy solutions can benefit from independent and evidence-based academic analysis.
‘QPol’ is a new public policy engagement and outreach initiative at Queen’s University Belfast that will aim to open up the University’s research and expertise to a wider range of policymakers and address some of the obstacles facing effective policy engagement.
A ‘communication failure’
A survey of the UK senior civil service, conducted by the University of Manchester’s policy hub, Policy@Manchester, found that there was clear demand amongst civil servants for engagement with the academic community on policy matters, not only through research findings and policy briefings, but also direct (and presumably less formal) access to their general expertise. There are guidelines for government officials engaging with academia and, recently, MPs have expressed their support for the use of randomised control trials in the design and testing of social policy, one example of a more scientific, evidence-based approach to policy development.
Despite this, there exists a long perceived ‘communication failure’ between academics and policymakers. This is attributable to various factors, including cultural differences between the two communities, historic inaccessibility of academic research, proliferation of technical jargon in academic papers and absence of formal links and policy engagement networks. It can also be difficult to accurately evidence impact on policy, which might develop gradually over a number of years and, in a political environment, challenging for academics to achieve due credit for their influence on the ‘substance’ of a successful policy.
The open access agenda and the emphasis on impact may help to address some of these issues, encouraging the research base to open itself up more to the wider world. However, both the academic and policymaking communities could be doing more to improve conditions for the exchange of evidence-based research and innovative ideas. The shared benefits should be obvious. Academics have an opportunity to influence and inform the policy agenda, directly applying their expertise to the big issues of the day, and demonstrate the socio-economic impact of their research, with REF 2020 already looming (and government policy cited as the most common form of impact in REF 2014). Policymakers, on the other hand, have direct access to an invaluable, world-class pool of expertise and ideas that could expand their evidence base, provide an independent analysis of policy issues and contribute to the development of innovative.
A complex environment
In the coming years, government will continue to face the challenges of an increasingly complex policy environment. At a regional level, issues on the horizon for Northern Ireland in particular are likely to include further devolution from Westminster, the implementation of changes to local government, further cuts to funding for public services, questions about the shape and size of government, increasingly pressurised health, education and welfare services and environment and energy concerns – to name but a few. These issues cut across the wide range of expertise at Queen’s, recently deemed world-class in many areas by the REF 2014 exercise.
Filling the gap
QPol will aim to fill the communications and engagement gap between academic and policymaker, providing a channel for the exchange of ideas, research, analysis and innovative policy solutions. The ultimate goal is a well-informed and active debate on these challenges, both through the democratic institutions and civic society, with tangible evidence of academic input into the policies implemented through government.
QPol will act as the ‘front door’ for engagement between the research base and policymakers, providing the formal organisational support that has often been lacking. QPol’s involvement might range from facilitation of early-stage engagement with the appropriate expertise, to more advanced brokering between government, academics and support staff. Events will be a mix of lectures, policy briefings and Chatham House-style roundtable seminars between key stakeholders. Through all this engagement, QPol’s overarching objective will be to ensure that opportunities are capitalised upon and real policy impact is realised.
It is important to remember that policy work affects the whole of society and the majority of these discussions do not need to take place behind closed doors. At the heart of QPol will be this Policy Blog, which will aim to make academic research, expertise and the latest thinking in the policymaking world more accessible to a wider audience. Articles will be written in the accessible, succinct and non-academic style that policymakers desire, providing background and analysis of key issues, invigorating debate and serving as a showcase of potential policy solutions emerging from the research base at Queen’s and their collaborators.
The launch of this blog is continuation of a trend across the sector, and an important first step at Queen’s, towards more effective and fruitful engagement between academics and policymakers in an age where problems are more complex and academic research seeks to prove its worth.
We hope that you will follow our progress over the coming months through this website (you can sign up for updates here) and our social media channels as we announce more of the events and initiatives that QPol will deliver.
Professor Sally Wheeler is Head of the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast and provides academic leadership of the QPol initiative.