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The University of Oxford offers a wide range of support for researchers to engage with public policy in the UK.

Guidance note 7: How universities can support engagement with public policy

Key Points

  • The University of Oxford already offers a wide range of support for researchers to engage with public policy in the UK.
  • It is now also developing its capability to advise on policy engagement internationally.

This Guidance Note both describes some of the resources and services available in the University of Oxford to help researchers to engage with public policy, and indicates some of the resources available from some other UK universities to assist international policy engagement.

Introduction to the Policy Engagement Team

The University of Oxford’s Policy Engagement Team was established in January 2019 with the aim of supporting the University’s researchers and academics to engage effectively with public policy. They also work to facilitate public policy engagement with academic research. The Policy Engagement Team works for all four divisions of the University, and for Gardens, Libraries and Museums.

The main services that the policy engagement team provide include:

  • Offering guidance on formal opportunities for policy engagement and policy work. This includes guidance on funding proposals that include a policy impact component; select committee or government consultations submissions;
  • Facilitating engagement with policymakers, where the team have networks and advising on where networks exist within the university;
  • Delivering training programmes for early career researchers and DPhil students (including online training programmes);
  • Delivering targeted seminars on skills for effective policy engagement, for example on evidence synthesis; and
  • Managing the Oxford Policy Engagement Network which provides updates on policy engagement opportunities and networking opportunities for members.

Accessing policy engagement opportunities

The number and breadth of opportunities for academics and researchers to engage with public policy is wide ranging and is increasing. So far, formal opportunities to engage have focused on engagement with UK policy institutions and actors. The Policy Engagement Team is looking to broaden access to opportunities with international organisations in particular, and to highlight relevant opportunities for engagement internationally. As of July 2020, researchers will primarily encounter open opportunities for engagement with governments and parliaments across the UK, in the following forms.

Government consultations and parliamentary inquiries

Governments around the UK issue notification of consultation opportunities. These are opportunities for experts and citizens more broadly to feed in information through either a short written submission or a questionnaire to help inform and think through government policy. The UK Parliament, Welsh Parliament, Scottish Parliament and the Norther Ireland Assembly issue calls for evidence for parliamentary inquiries, often in the form of short written submissions.

Fellowships and placements

Often targeted at DPhil students, early career and mid-career researchers, both the UK Parliament and UK Government offer opportunities to work closely with policy teams to conduct targeted research and build networks with UK policymakers and policy influencers. With the UK Parliament researchers and academics can find themselves conducting research for library briefings, supporting select committee inquiries or working with the Parliamentary office of Science and Technology. Some of these fellowships are funded by UK learned societies.

The UK Government Cabinet Office has established the Open Innovation Team, that coordinates placements and partnerships for researchers with government teams to tackle specific policy questions. These placements and partnerships are often for DPhil students and early career researchers. The Open Innovation Team reaches out to more experienced academics to provide talks and high-level guidance for civil servants. Placements with the Open Innovation Team are not funded. To explore funding options please contact the Policy Engagement Team.

Contribute to parliamentary briefings

So far, the main way in which researchers can contribute to parliamentary briefings is through the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Briefings are often used by Members of Parliaments ahead of debates, or to inform select committee members. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology also provides horizon-scanning briefings to alert members of parliament to issues of scientific importance. The University’s policy engagement web pages include a link to the latest opportunities to contribute to briefings.

The Policy Engagement Team looks to provide the University has dedicated and frequently updated web pages that outline policy engagement opportunities, primarily within the UK and the devolved administrations. This list is updated weekly.

These opportunities include lists of government consultations and parliamentary inquiries; upcoming and open funding opportunities and fellowship opportunities; and opportunities to contribute expertise to parliamentary briefings.

Ad hoc opportunities

From time to time, the Policy Engagement Team is approached by policymakers and by the Universities Policy Engagement Network with opportunities. Recent opportunities include signing up to the UK’s parliamentary expert registers on COVID-19 and for COP26; teaching a group of Members of Parliament from across the world; and open applications to provide research support to the UK Government’s Office for Science. For Oxford Researchers: to be included in future notifications of ad-hoc opportunities, please sign up to the Oxford Policy Engagement Network.

Providing guidance and advice

One-to-one advice

The Policy Engagement Team is on hand to provide one-to-one advice and guidance on policy engagement to members of the Oxford Policy Engagement Network. This may include advice on how to design policy engagement in research project proposals; guidance and review of policy impact sections of research proposals; and guidance for those who would like to discuss policy engagement opportunities such as fellowships, placements or evidence submissions. For more information on the Oxford Policy Engagement Network, please see below.

Guidance notes

In addition to one-to-one guidance, the Policy Engagement Team has created a section of the website that includes guidance for researchers and academics looking to engage with public policy. This includes guidance from the UK Parliament and from the UK Government; links to UK Government departments’ Areas of Research Interest which outline the key research questions that government departments are looking to address; and guidance on research for policy impact from a number of organisations and think tanks. The Policy Engagement Team has also commissioned and contributed to targeted guidance notes for researchers. These guidance notes focus on policy engagement internationally (notes 1-8 in this series). Forthcoming guidance notes focus on monitoring, evaluation and reporting on policy engagement and impact.

Learning from policy engaged academics

The Policy Engagement Team has developed a series of articles, interviews and blogs detailing Oxford academics’ experience in policy engagement. You can find these resources at Oxford's experience in policy engagement. This section of the website outline challenges that academics face; provide advice and guidance; and demonstrating what policy engagement can achieve.

Training programmes and seminars

DPhil students, researchers and academics can introductory training with the Policy Engagement Team. This training explores skills and knowledge for people who want to engage more effectively with public policy. The team will also be launching the ‘Introduction to UK Policy Engagement’ online training course in Michaelmas 2020, available through the University’s booking system. This training provides a comprehensive introduction to the UK’s policy environment and processes, as well as training in policy engagement approaches. The online training has been developed in partnership with the Institute for Government.

Drawing on experience within departments and divisions

Support and resources for policy engagement exist across the University, often linked to roles and funds for research impact. Researchers and academics can explore the following teams to find answers to policy engagement questions, and to seek out policy engagement opportunities.

Impact Acceleration Account

Impact Acceleration Accounts (IAA) are funded by a number of the UK research councils, including the BBSRC, EPSRC and ESRC. They provide funding for impact-focused work, including policy engagement. Researchers and academics can explore the IAA in the Medical Sciences Division (MSD), Mathematics, Physical and Life Sciences (MPLS) and Social Sciences Division (SSD), as well as draw on previous IAA projects for guidance and inspiration.

Divisional and departmental research impact teams

Research departments and divisions often have staff that focus on supporting research, who have expertise in research impact, including policy engagement. In addition to their own knowledge, they are also a useful source on information on policy-engaged academics in the department/division.

Academics

Academics themselves are the greatest source of expertise on policy engagement. A number of academics at the University have deep experience of engaging with public policy, from those who have undertaken commissioned research by the European Commission, to people who have given oral evidence in Parliament. A number of academics even hold official government roles, such Chief Scientific Adviser in government departments. Academics in researchers’ own departments and divisions may often be able to help find the right avenue for policy engagement in that field. Since networks in the policy-making world are also a valuable asset when looking to engage with public policy, academics with existing networks can be vital in this respect.

An overview of the Oxford Policy Engagement Network (OPEN)

The Policy Engagement Team has established the Oxford Policy Engagement Network (OPEN) to support researchers to find policy engagement opportunities, public policymakers and other policy-engaged academics. As a new initiative, the scope and focus of OPEN may change over time. As of July 2020, membership of OPEN provides researchers, academics and research support staff with

  • E-mail updates of policy engagement opportunities, tailored to the member’s selected policy areas
  • Notifications of ad-hoc opportunities to engage with public policy
  • Access to ‘surgeries’ and guidance from the policy engagement team
  • Invitations to networking events and seminars with policymakers and academic colleagues

Introduction to UPEN

The Policy Engagement Team connects the University of Oxford to the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN). UPEN is a network of policy engagement and communications functions of 56 universities across the UK (as of July 2020). UPEN meets quarterly to discuss key issues in public policy engagement, including support for researchers to engage with governments and parliaments such as engagement with the Government departments’ Areas of Research Interest. UPEN is a new network, so the scope, structures and priorities of it may change.

What are the advantages of UPEN membership?

UPEN has already built a strong relationship with the UK Government, the UK Parliament and the devolved administrations. For researchers, UPEN is valuable in communicating key policy engagement opportunities in governments and parliaments. These opportunities are disseminated by the University of Oxford’s Policy Engagement Team. UPEN’s website can also be a useful source of guidance through numerous blogs, and the advertisement of members’ events.

Other support for policy engagement internationally

Key points

  • A number of UK universities have developed services to support policy engagement internationally, or are thinking about expanding their activities in this area.
  • There is no uniform approach to how these services are organised, or what they focus on, but the difficulty of acquiring sufficient knowledge about the policy context in other countries is a common challenge.

Policy engagement work with an international aspect has also been developing in some other UK universities. While their resources are generally focused, of course, on supporting their own research communities, their relevant webpages can be a valuable source of insights and inspiration more widely.

One of the longest-established functions of this kind is the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP),which despite its name has a wide remit covering research in all disciplines. Its Policy Fellowships Programme, which is described in Guidance Note 3, provides an instructive example of how quite extensive policy engagement can be built into the architecture of research proposals from the outset. Other universities also have very active policy engagement support functions. The majority of the activity and of the guidance that has been produced understandably has a focus on UK institutions, but the University of Edinburgh’s Edinburgh Research Office has posted an account of a learning lunch event on Engaging with Policymakers Internationally (many of the points raised in which have contributed to this guidance) and has also provided guidance on sources of ODA funding for research.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), whose mission embraces the translation of health research knowledge into policy and practice globally as well as in the UK, has a particular interest in the issues around policy engagement. It is the institutional home of Professor Kathryn Oliver, the ARI Policy Engagement Fellow, and supports the Transforming Evidence collaboration. An LSHTM research project also produced as set of Evidence Advisory System Briefing Notes for six countries. The aim of the project was to explore how, why, and when national ministries of health use research evidence in the process of policy-making, and which political and institutional factors influence the utilisation of relevant scientific evidence. While these Notes are specific to health policy, they provide an excellent introduction to the sorts of questions about institutions and processes that researchers in any discipline should aspire to have some understanding of, for any country they aim to have to impact in.

The US Centre of the LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science) maintains an interactive State of the States database; this provides a wealth of information that may help researchers to understand what issues policy actors at state level may be interested in and the context in which they are operating.

At the University of Southampton the Public Policy team manages the university’s affiliation to the CSaP Policy Fellowship Programme, and also has established a relationship with the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge service. On a wider international stage, the Public Policy team provides training for LMIC academics, for example on writing for a policy audience, as part of the capacity-building element of some ongoing GCRF projects.

The University of Nottingham has a relatively recently established Institute for Policy and Engagement. Its work includes supporting academics to produce policy briefings to showcase policy-relevant research from across the university and provide an evidence base for policy makers. Nottingham also hosts the secretariat of the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN). It has been actively pursuing policy engagement in the UK context, and is developing an international policy engagement function. It is actively considering how best to add value in this field; some of its thinking, particularly about the risks and challenges for researchers, are reflected in Guidance Note 5 in this series.

Two general points emerge from even a brief and partial survey of university activity in the field of international policy engagement. One is that, given the vast canvas of possible interactions, it is not uncommon that the international relationships that a university has cultivated centrally have been largely determined by chance and by building opportunistically on previous personal relationships and contacts.

The second is that the greatest challenges reported by university professional services staff in supporting policy engagement internationally revolve around the scarcity of good information. Academics do approach support offices for guidance on how to make contact with the policy community in specific countries, but it is difficult to know the relevant points of access except where relationships have been built up through previous collaborations with local research institutions. It can be hard, particularly in larger universities, to acquire good information centrally about the range, across departments and disciplines, of existing or previous links with governments or higher education institutions in any given country, limiting the ability of the university to pull together networks which could pool relevant knowledge and contacts. While responding to government and parliamentary consultations can provide a good point of entry for policy engagement, it is impossible for support offices to provide a comprehensive horizon-scanning service -to know what coming up globally, though it may be more feasible to keep an eye on a few countries or international organisations of particular interest.

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