Academic research is still highly trusted but rarely used

March 28, 2018

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By Professor Mark Shucksmith OBE, Newcastle University and Carnegie UK Trustee

Universities are under more and more pressure to show the impact of their research – to demonstrate what they are good for, not just good at. And in a climate of concern about the use and presentation of evidence, demonstrated by the Brexit referendum debate, it has never been more important for policy and practice to be informed by good quality evidence. But has this push and pull led to a shift in the interest in and demand for evidence by policymakers and practitioners? Are opportunities to share evidence across borders and between sectors actively being pursued?

A new survey by the Carnegie UK Trust has revealed that academics’ research is still highly trusted but rarely used by policymakers. Between October 2017 and January 2018, 241 social policy professionals and practitioners across the UK took part in an online survey, following up an earlier 2013 survey to uncover their views on social policy evidence. Most placed great importance on using evidence to inform their work, and academics sources were regarded as the most trustworthy.

However, while 63% of respondents believe that universities are always or usually trustworthy sources of evidence, only 35% of respondents frequently use evidence produced by universities to inform their work – a lower percentage than those who frequently use evidence produced by the government and its agencies and third sector networks, despite these being less trusted sources. These figures correspond closely to those found in the 2013 survey.

With over 200,000 academics working in UK universities, this is a huge missed opportunity for better informed policy. How could we do more to translate this expertise into social impact – to put our research excellence to public service?

Two years ago I wrote a report for the Carnegie UK Trust on how academic research might inform public policy and practice more effectively, and in particular how universities could work more closely with third sector organisations to help make this happen. You might ask why?

First, it’s important to remember that both third sector practitioners and academic institutions are knowledge creators working for public benefit.  Each has a shared interest in achieving impact and, although they work with different types of knowledge and expertise, they have real potential together to improve social policy and practice.  This doesn’t always happen at the moment and our research suggests that there is a real gap to fill.

Policymakers and practitioners are often eager to find reliable evidence to help inform their work but, while thirsty for knowledge, they tend to drown in a sea of information. Drawing on the accumulated expertise and knowledge of an established academic can be really helpful.  For their part, academics often lack a sophisticated grasp of policy processes, so working together with larger third sector organisations can help them communicate more effectively. Equally, voluntary and community organisations can find their work taken more seriously if it is produced in collaboration with respected academics.

The knowledge exchange process itself can be highly innovative and lead to new insights, especially if academics and third sector partners engage in genuine co-creation. It is also more likely to lead to more grounded and helpful recommendations.

But there are some challenges to consider.

Each sector often has different ideas about what constitutes ‘evidence’ and how it should be produced and used. The academic world tends to be motivated toward the publication of specialist journal articles, whereas the third sector is motivated primarily towards the delivery of social change and social impact. Many third sector organisations (and the public) find universities impenetrable, and their outputs couched in incomprehensible jargon.

My report identified the major obstacles to greater cooperation between academics and the third sector, as well as highlighting some emerging opportunities. The building of long-term relationships with policymakers across both sectors is fundamental, as evidence accumulates that knowledge exchange is above all a social process. Also crucial is more understanding of, and investment in, the process of ‘alchemy’ by which academic findings are translated into accessible and usable forms.

Suggestions in the report included more secondments, employment of ‘Knowledge brokers’, face to face meetings and learning workshops. Encouraging third sector organisations to enlist academics onto their boards may be an easy win. Similarly earlier and more substantive third sector involvement in academic project advisory groups could improve the relevance and timeliness of academic work.

The funding context is important and, although some resources are available, engagement remains the ‘third strand’ poor relation, and more encouragement could be given by UKRI (UK Research & Innovation). The research councils’ ‘Impact Acceleration Accounts’ have proved effective and could suggest funding models which offer greater support and stronger incentives for knowledge exchange and co-creation while also addressing the imbalances of financial resources between these very different sectors.

This is an opportune moment as we reaffirm the public purpose of universities and emphasise the role of science in society, despite the tendency toward emphasising individualism in university funding policies. Although it is just a starting point, my report, and these new survey findings, should encourage universities, the third sector and funders to consider how they can work more collaboratively together, drawing on each other’s strengths for the public good, This will help academic research not only to remain highly trusted but also to become more frequently used in policy and practice.


This blog is an update to a blog originally hosed by Times Higher Education in April 2016.