Engaging policy makers and publics: the value of bringing people and ideas together

September 9, 2019

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by Professor Mark Shucksmith OBE, Newcastle University and Carnegie UK Trust Trustee

University research is highly trusted and prized – but it sometimes needs a bit of help to leap out of ivory tower windows, onto policy makers’ desks and into peoples’ lives. Most academics want their work to make a difference, and working together with partners in policy and practice makes that more likely, as I argued in my report InterAction when I was Carnegie Fellow in 2016. Today, the civic university agenda, corporate social responsibility and changes to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) all contribute to the increasing appetite of universities to connect with, and bring direct benefit to, people outside of academia and their local communities.

The Carnegie UK Trust seeks to promote the use of evidence by policy makers and practitioners, and encourages universities to work co-operatively with other social partners. Why? Because we believe that good quality, appropriate evidence and analysis is essential to improving the effectiveness of wellbeing policy.  Yet, whilst academic evidence is the most trusted source of evidence from the perspective of policy makers, it is seldom used by them. Some of the reasons for this are explored in my report, including lack of understanding of each other’s worlds and organisational structures, lack of funding to support interaction, and the paywalls which restrict access to research findings.

Engagement between academics and government or third sector organisations can take many forms – from knowledge exchange to co-production of knowledge. We have a keen interest in developing cross sectoral partnerships across the UK to increase the InterAction between academics and other sectors and are looking at what helps and hinders the co-production of research between researches and individuals, with the aim of increasing research uptake and use.

One area in which we foresee significant benefits from this approach relates to the role and future of public libraries. Our new programme of work, Engaging Libraries, supports public libraries to enter into partnership with researchers to deliver public engagement activities. We are looking to energise and empower people who work or volunteer in public libraries by giving them the opportunity to access, use and respond to research; to think critically about research; or to play a role in formulating and co-designing research. The aim? To broaden minds and horizons – the building blocks of understanding, tolerance and empathy – in a safe and trusted space.

It is not only the public who have something to gain from access to interesting and engaging ideas and contact with the research process. Engaging with publics offers rewards for universities too: it can strengthen the relevance and responsiveness of universities, provide critical challenge, help build accountability and build trust. And, unlike outdated models of knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange is a two-way process through which academics have as much to learn as their partners, with knowledge synergies fostering new insights and innovation.

Universities have so much to offer and the Carnegie UK Trust is keen to see this potential realised; to see excellent academic work have a positive impact on the policies that affect and shape our lives – and especially the lives of the most vulnerable – as well as inspiring curiosity, interest, understanding and stimulating critical thinking in all of us.