I attended a meeting with Sir Mark Walport recently where he said that academics need to work more effectively with government policymakers. The Warwick Institute for Employment Research (IER), of which I am Director, does this almost on a daily basis. Working with the Foresight team, we have just produced a number of short reports to help better communicate research to policymakers and academics on the future of skills and skill needs across the life-course, for example.
In this respect, IER is an exemplar of how academics can work effectively with government. For over 30 years it has been making a positive impact on policy. This work started in the 1980s, developing what is now called Working Futures – a regularly updated forecast of skills in the UK labour market. This research also now underpins LMI for All, which makes government-held labour market information accessible to the wider public to enable individuals to make informed career decisions.
But such engagement is the exception, not the norm. More academics need to work productively with government if we are to help create better informed policy and to keep academic research relevant. To do so, academics need ‘critical proximity’: getting closer to government whilst maintaining independent judgement on what is needed and what works.
Reversing the trend
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is triggering change. The REF assesses UK universities’ research and allocates funding. For the first time in 2014, the REF required universities to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their academics’ research. In its 2020 incarnation, it looks set to explicitly include impact on government policy.
Gaining critical proximity is now important for academics and universities. In their seminal work on high performance workplaces, Professor Rose Batt and her colleagues emphasised the need for ‘AMO’. Workers need to have ability, motivation and opportunity. Similarly, academics need ‘AIO’ if they are to work more effectively with government: ability, incentive and opportunity.
- Academics need to have the right communication, political and networking abilities to work with policymakers. They also need knowledge of the policy landscape and how policy is made.
- More academics need to be incentivised to engage government. Universities need to reinforce the REF incentive by building engagement into criteria for hiring, promoting and rewarding academic staff.
- Universities also need to provide academics with the opportunity to engage – creating time for it within academic workloads. That is, they should add the task of engagement to the current tasks of teaching, researching and administration, and encourage a good balance between all four.
Having AIO would help deliver critical proximity and, through it, provide mutual gains for academics, their universities and the government.
Visit the Foresight Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning project website to find out more about the project.
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