Why science may soon play a much bigger role in public policy

Former civil servant Steve O'Neil takes a fresh look at the appliance of science at the heart of government

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By Steve O'Neil

09 Aug 2019

A few years back, reflecting on making the switch from Whitehall to Westminster I wrote that “I never once saw a think tank report when I was in Whitehall, but in Westminster my desk was covered in them”. One thing I didn’t say, but should have, is that seldom in either sphere did I encounter academia reaching out to share its expertise as part of the policy process. This always struck me as odd – as the late Sir Jeremy Heywood once wrote: “We clearly have an immense pool of academic talent on our doorstep and, while there are many excellent examples of collaboration, it often feels like we could be doing more.”

So it’s been a puzzle that there has not been more use of science advice in policy. One could add both social science and the humanities. The reasons for that are many – for those interested I would recommend the Institute for Government’s How government can work with academia report. The fault, if you can call it that, lies on both sides. Neither academia nor the civil service are particularly good at reaching out to the other. And in fairness it is not a priority for either. However, I do not want to write a lament about why this is so, because more importantly there are good reasons to think that it is about to change.

Making an impact

Civil Servants may have noticed an uptick of late in interest from academics wanting to share their work with government. Many major universities are setting up public policy “units” or “institutes” for that purpose. I’ve been working with Imperial College London to establish their version, The Forum, over the last few months. Some universities have even employed former senior civil servants or think tank bosses to lead these programmes.  

A major driver of this sudden interest has been change to the way in which research is assessed. In 2014 the “Research Assessment Exercise” was replaced by the new “Research Excellence Framework”. That is, as its sounds, higher education jargon – but one of the important things the REF did was introduce assessment of “impact”. Importantly that includes “an effect on, change or benefit to… public policy”. For a long time, many in academia have felt they have untapped insights that can enhance policy analysis, but now there is a clear signal and incentive to do so. It’s the result of this change we are starting to see. 

Interest in the public policy impact of research has even led to the creation of an umbrella body for major universities looking to share insights with government. The Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) has 37 members and aims to “harness the collective research power” to “increase the public policy impact” and give a “coordinated, efficient, and enhanced offer to policymakers”. The University of Nottingham has just taken over UPEN’s secretariat from the University of Southampton, and its new chair is a former Department for Education director general Stephen Meek.

So it is hard to doubt academia’s desire to play a bigger part in supporting public policy development. But that makes the question: Is government and the civil service ready to take advantage of the offer?

Embedding science in policy 

As someone who has worked on policy and understands the challenges, I think – cautiously – the answer is “yes”. We’ve had the Chief Scientific Advisor Network and the Government Office for Science for a while. They play a positive role in providing science advice in government and acting as a go between with academia. But following the Nurse Review of Research Councils we’ve also seen the introduction of departmental “Areas of Research Interest”, which for the first time detail the research questions departments have. While the ARIs need some work to be fully effective, they promise to be a hugely helpful tool for academic-policy engagement.

More important, though, is the possibility of a cultural change and in the new Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, it may have found a champion. Speaking at a Q&A at Imperial last month he described a conversation with a previous cabinet secretary who told him: “Science advice across government has been a bit sporadic. Sometimes it is great. Sometimes it is really important in emergencies … but it is not always great… It is not absolutely part of the system in the way that, for example, the economists have become”. Vallance said the unnamed cab sec had asked: “Why do you not try to make the science as instrumental and embedded as the economists are?” before concluding that should be the aim.

I know that many old hands will be sceptical of such ambitious talk. But if you combine a willingness in the civil service to take science advice seriously with the step change in academia in seeking to create public policy impact there is every reason to believe that science may soon play a much bigger role in public policy.

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