A light-bulb is illustrated on a bright yellow post-it note and pinned to a pinboard
For many researchers policy engagement is driven by a desire for their work to make a difference in the world. Policy engagement, nationally and internationally, can also lead to policy impacts which can be reported in REF case studies.

Guidance note 1: What we mean by policy engagement

Key points

  • For many researchers policy engagement is driven by a strong desire for their work to make a difference in the world, and to change public policy for the better.
  • It is also essential for UK universities, and units and departments within them, to maximise the income they receive from numerous funding streams including the annual allocation which is determined by the REF.
  • Policy engagement, internationally as well as nationally, can lead to policy impacts which can be reported in REF case studies.

A definition

It is important to begin by being clear about what we mean by policy engagement, and why it matters.

The Policy Engagement Team understands policy engagement as:

“an umbrella term describing the many ways that researchers and policymakers connect and explore common interests at various stages in their respective research and policymaking processes. From informal enquiries to formal inquiries, in consultation or sustained collaboration, policy engagement enables researchers and policymakers to improve public policy through making the most of academic evidence, expertise and experience.”

We unpack these terms a little more – what actually do we mean by policy, by policymakers and the policy process? – in Guidance Note 2. For now, we just wish to note that the other key term with which engagement is often coupled is impact. As the definition above implies, researchers aim to engage with those involved in the processes of making public policy in order to have an impact on the quality of the resulting policies. This may be driven by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

Intrinsic motivation

Our discussions with researchers, across a number of different disciplines, revealed that many are propelled by a strong impulse to make a difference – to put their knowledge and their understanding of the issues in their field at the disposal of those who are making the relevant policy decisions, so as to bring about better outcomes for all. This may be linked to an ethical conviction that the results of research, and particularly perhaps that funded by the public purse, should be as widely accessible as possible and relevant to the current needs of society. It may also sometimes be accompanied by a certain frustration that policy does not appear to reflect the best available current knowledge. At the same time there is a recognition among researchers that not everyone is motivated in the same way, and that while some feel strongly driven by the desire for policy engagement others are more inwardly-focused on furthering the evolving debates within their own field of study. This difference may reflect the area of research concerned, but may also be a matter of personal inclination – or of the contractual requirements of employing institutions.

Another aspect of intrinsic motivation relates to information and knowledge. Some researchers report that their engagement with the policy world has provided insights into emerging issues, opportunities for new learning and inspiration for further research, as well as enabling them to share their knowledge. There is a recognition that more senior established academics may be able to allow themselves the luxury of following their own knowledge agenda in ways that are not open to early career researchers. However, collaborating with government departments may sometimes, more instrumentally, give access to data sets which will be a valuable research resource, while working with international organisations especially can generate contacts with other researchers and potential collaborators in the same field across the globe.

A common theme in much of the existing advice on policy engagement, as well as the discussions we had with researchers and support staff, is that effective engagement is more likely to come about if is thought about early. Of those researchers we spoke to, few if any said that they had begun with a deliberate strategy to develop their engagement with public policy – often it was more a matter of seizing opportunities that happened to present themselves, and one thing leading to another. While this has clearly worked out well for some, our aim is to help more researchers think through how they can engage with public policy more systematically and effectively, and enable their research to have the impact they feel it should. Those who complete their research and then begin to look for policy actors who may have a question which corresponds to the answers they have now acquired are less likely to be successful than those who think about possible impact early on, ideally when preparing their proposals.

Guidance Note 7 provides more information about the support the University can offer researchers in this area. For the University, the equivalent to intrinsic motivation is twofold: the desire to enhance and reinforce the already very substantial international prestige and standing of the institution, and to ensure that the research it generates informs global debates and decision-making; and the recognition by the policy engagement team that greater engagement with high quality research from the university has the potential to strengthen public policy.

Extrinsic motivation

However much individual researchers may be motivated by the desire for their work to make a difference in the world, it is impossible to overlook the importance of policy engagement in securing research funding. This is a major extrinsic motivation for engagement. Some forms of policy engagement are themselves remunerated, through research or consultancy contracts let by government departments to help them address specific policy problems; researchers, especially more senior figures with established reputations, may also be retained as long-term advisors on a fee-paid basis.

Even unpaid opportunities to engage with the policy process may in some cases lead directly to funding for further research (and in Guidance Note 6 we look at the opportunities for contracts with international organisations), though this cannot be relied on. They may also provide helpful evidence in support of a future grant application, provided they involve a sufficiently formal interaction that can be clearly cited. Contributions to policy documents like White Papers are likely (though not certain) to be acknowledged in the publication; more informal and ad hoc discussions with or requests for comments or advice from government departments may be hard to substantiate, and will most be of material value in that they can help to build credibility and reputation.

ARIs are an aid to researchers and funders to design research which is aligned with current policy priorities and will have impact

In the UK the dialogue between researchers and government has been greatly facilitated since 2017 by the Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) initiative; most departments publish online an ARI document which sets out the most important research questions facing the organisation. While part of the purpose of ARIs was to ensure a more strategic approach to departmental research programmes, ARIs are not intended as invitations to tender for specific research projects so much as an aid to researchers and funders to design research which is aligned with current policy priorities and will have impact, and indicate topics on which the department would welcome communications from researchers. No equivalent of the ARIs is known so far to exist in any other government, which makes the alignment of research questions with policy interests a more challenging process (as discussed in Guidance Note 5).

Amongst the UK government departments with an international policy focus, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) did not have a dedicated research and development budget, but did publish a wide range of research interests, while the Department for International Development (DFID) had a dedicated research and evidence budget of around £400 million per annum. DFID did not produce ARI but did stress on its website the importance it placed on high quality research which generated strong and applicable evidence on which to build its programmes, and published funding opportunities under its Research for Development programme. How these structures will evolve in future, following the government’s announcement on 16 June 2020 of the merger of the FCO and DFID into a new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, remains to be seen.

There are some sources of grant funding which may support research that is of policy relevance to overseas governments, and which counts as part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance budget, as defined by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC). For example:

  • the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), administered by UKRI and a large group of development partners, supports research to address the challenges faced by developing countries;
  • the Newton Fund develops science and innovation partnerships in collaborating countries;
  • the Newton Fund Impact Scheme, administered by the British Council, supports current and previous Newton Fund grantees to initiate or increase policy impacts or user engagement, including by translating existing research or research outcomes into policy impacts;
  • the Darwin Initiative protects biodiversity and the natural environment in developing countries, including through research.

There are in fact multiple sources of ODA-linked research funding, which including DFID programmes amounts to nearly £1.5 bn across all budgets, and which will potentially support research that leads to policy impact.

Even more significant from universities’ point of view, however, is the weight given to the assessment of impact in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which determines the allocation of some £2 bn per year of institutional funding to UK universities by the four higher education funding bodies.6 Impact counted for 20% of the assessment in the 2011 exercise, increasing to 25% in 2021, and it is therefore of vital importance to universities, and departments and units within them, to support forms of policy engagement which will generate evidence of impact. The way in which impact is viewed in the REF is discussed further below.


As Professor Mark Reed puts it, very concisely: “Impact is the good that researchers can do in the world.” For the purposes of the REF, impact is defined more elaborately as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.” It includes “an effect on, change or benefit to:

  • the activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding
  • of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals
  • in any geographic location whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally.”

[Taken from REF 2021 Guidance on Submissions (January 2019)]

Within this very broad category it is worth noting that public policy is only one of a number of domains within which research might have impact, and also that international impact counts equally with impact within the UK, so engagement with the policy-making of overseas governments or with international organisations may yield results that will be highly regarded by the REF assessors.

The measurement of impacts on policy is notoriously difficult, for reasons which are excellently summarised in the FCO’s June 2020 ARI update:

“. . . measuring the impact of any particular individual or academic department, whether inside or outside the Civil Service, faces significant challenges, for example:

  • in the policy process, outcomes tend to be the result of many different voices and factors rather than of the ideas or actions of a single person or team
  • impact can be gradual, taking a long time to be realised
  • ongoing relationships allowing for ad hoc learning by FCO staff are often more impactful than single articles or books, but can be harder to evidence
  • where academics publish or broadcast in the traditional or social media the impact they have on diplomats’ understanding of the world may be significant, but similarly hard to evidence
  • however good a piece of research is in its own terms, it may ultimately not affect the course of policy because it is weighed against other important factors
  • conversely, research methods or conclusions which are widely challenged could nevertheless have impact by sparking debate and bringing new questions to the fore, even where this was not the researcher’s primary intent.”

The REF methodology assesses impact through case studies. In both REF 214 and REF 2021 “[t]he combination of a compelling narrative to describe the impact, the underpinning research, and citations of evidence to corroborate the impact was seen as a ‘workable approach’ to describe these nuanced relationships” that exist between research and impacts beyond academia.” This approach certainly allows for some of the uncertainties surrounding the results of policy engagement to be accommodated. It also allows for the lengthy timescales that may be needed for new knowledge to have appreciable impact on policy. The impacts described must have occurred during the assessment period 1 August 2013 to 31 December 2020, and be underpinned by excellent research undertaken in the unit concerned during the period 1 January 2000 to 31 December 2020 (a timescale which allows for impact prior to publication).

Because of the UK’s dual funding mechanism for research, it is probable that some of the impacts described in case studies will arise from projects that have been funded by one of the discipline-focused research councils. A good example is provided by Oxford’s case study Improving the Understanding and Use of Performance Indicators in Public Sector Management (21-09), describing work led by Professors Hood and McLean as part of the ESRC-funded Public Services Programme; the research helped shape the approach to performance management in the public sector adopted by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, as well as informing policy change in the UK. This reinforces the importance of working up a strategy for policy engagement at an early stage as part of the preparation of grant proposals, wherever this is likely to be relevant, or better still, as described in Guidance Note 3, involving potential policy users of the research in the development of the research questions. The University’s Policy Engagement Team can provide support and guidance if required (see Guidance Note 7).