Based on interviews with former Ministers, special advisers and officials, How to talk to policymakers about research considers common errors and looks at how to improve the relationship between researchers and policymakers.
The conclusions include:
- Policymakers tend to conceptualise the value of research in just two categories: applied research and research used as evidence in policymaking.
- Long timescales and a lack of control over outcomes can frustrate policymakers, who tend to want immediate results and clear links between funding and economic growth.
- Proof that research and development (R&D) funding has leveraged local business investment creates a powerful argument for policymakers to provide further funding.
- There is an appetite among policymakers for non-utilitarian arguments on the value of research alongside (rather than instead of) economic evidence.
- There is scope for researchers to present a vision of the value that research adds to the UK but this should recognise the financial and other pressures on any government.
Among the points raised by those interviewed for the project are the following:
- On the political cycle, Dr Diana Beech (Policy Adviser to three Universities Ministers between 2018 and 2019) said: ‘Even with the best government in the world, you have got a four-year term. And if the government were to commission something, they know that that is not going to happen in their time in office – and that is the most frustrating thing for them, because they want to own it. They want the outcomes.’
- On electoral considerations, Lord (Jo) Johnson (Minister for Universities and Science from 2016 to 2018 and in 2019) said: ‘the science budget really is a third-order consideration for voters, and therefore politicians as well’.
- On academic-policy relations, Professor Graeme Reid (Chair of Science and Research Policy at UCL and a former civil servant) said: ‘academic-policy relations are probably in the place that academic-business relations were 20 years ago’.
- On central government priorities, Lord (David) Willetts (Minister for Universities and Science from 2010 to 2014) said: ‘One of the things that has always surprised me in my different spells in government, including as a civil servant, for example, working in the Number 10 Policy Unit, was how infrequently researchers asked, what are you working on?’
- On the economic returns of research, David Sweeney CBE (Executive Chair of Research England from 2017 to 2022) said: ‘I am not sure what the other option is [apart from linking research funding to economic growth], because the terms of a trade from the government are: “tell us about the return we will get for our investment”. So the sector find a methodology to provide an answer even though the returns are often not easily captured in a single number’.
- On the use of anecdotal evidence, Stian Westlake (Policy Adviser to the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation from 2017 to 2019) said: ‘sometimes really specific anecdotes can be incredibly helpful for giving some sort of specific locus to stick in people’s minds’.
- On the returns on public investment, Ben Johnson (Policy Adviser to Minister of State for Universities and Science from 2019 to 2021): ‘I think one of the great risks of saying “spend money on science and you will get guaranteed outcomes” is that it is not true. … Quite a lot of the time the only outputs from science spending are paywalled PDF journal articles, of interest only to other scientists, and often with no immediate utility beyond academia … Science is inherently uncertain. All research is inherently uncertain.’
- On engaging with voters, Andy Westwood (Special Adviser at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills from 2007 to 2009) said: ‘People [lobbying for research] will go straight from science superpower to full economic costing. But immediately you lose a lot of people, including the public, a wider constituency that could offer you legitimacy for what you are doing and how much it costs. You will end up in an obscure room in the Treasury where someone sort of whispers, “what are they talking about?”’
- On the full economic costing of research, Giles Wilkes (Special Adviser to the Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills from 2010 to 2014 and Special Adviser in Number 10 Downing Street from 2017 to 2019) said: ‘[If government paying full economic costing for research] just simply means you need to pay 15% more for the same thing, that is always going to be a tough pitch’.
The recommendations in the report include:
- Recognise higher education is just one sector among many – Many of the frustrations expressed by those with first-hand experience of Whitehall highlight a lack of understanding among the research community on the other commitments and pressures faced by policymakers. So any requests should be contextualised within the wider economic context and the challenges facing public services.
- Don’t forget that local matters – Those interviewed agreed one of the most effective ways to make the case for research is showing what it does for local communities and local economies. For example, showing how a university’s research leverages business investment in a local area shows the economic benefits clearly.
- Thinking beyond utilitarianism – While concrete ways of demonstrating economic value can be helpful, arguments should not be confined to the utilitarian. There is scope for articulating the value of research in ways that do not relate solely to its applied benefits – but to do so requires the imagination and boldness to formulate a vision of how the value of higher education research connects to ideas of society.
Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:
"Cutting-edge research is vital to tackling disease, understanding society and combating climate change. It is hard to deliver economic growth without new research to underpin it. Yet public support for research cannot be taken for granted. The research community has sometimes displayed a worrying tendency to assume the benefits of research are so obvious that policymakers are bound to recognise and reward them. Yet benefits from greater research spending are typically slow to arrive and policymakers are tempted to focus on voters’ shorter term priorities. So our new paper looks at how we can better bridge the gap between policymakers and researchers to the benefit of all."
In a Foreword to the report, Professor Nick Jennings, Vice-Chancellor and President of Loughborough University and the UK Government’s first Chief Scientific Adviser for National Security, writes:
‘It has never been more important to make the case for research to be recognised and exploited, to maintain and further develop Britain as an Innovation Nation, punching above its weight on a world stage. … The use of research to support and drive policymaking is an increasingly well recognised and valued route to generating impact, alongside the diverse ways in which research-related knowledge and skills benefit humanity by fostering economic performance, enhancing quality of life, health and creative output. …
'As I learnt from my time as a Government Chief Scientific Adviser, greater understanding and appreciation by policymakers of what research is and is not, balanced with how the academic community can better meet government needs, is needed. There must be a coordinated understanding of what research in universities should and should not be, and the purpose it serves, so that the higher education sector can know what is expected of it and match this with the needs of all stakeholders.’