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Engaging with policymakers as a researcher in the Arts and Humanities: a guide to how, what and why

Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson is a Classicist at the University of Oxford where she leads a project which investigates the impact of learning Classical languages on children’s cognitive development.

She has recently established a research and public policy partnership with the Department of Education and in this article she offers advice to fellow Arts and Humanities researchers for engaging with policymakers. Dr Holmes-Henderson was interviewed by Kayleigh Renberg-Fawcett, the current Secretariat for UPEN.


When did you first become interested in public policy?

My doctoral thesis explored the role of Classics in the school curriculum. This required reading a significant amount of educational policy, which I found challenging but fascinating. My linguistic training was a real asset here: I found discourse analysis an ideal tool for critically evaluating public policy and identifying priorities for improvement in policy formation and delivery.


How did you learn about the processes involved in policymaking?

I have completed two training courses which were transformative in clarifying my understanding of how policymaking works.

The first was the AHRC’s Engaging with Government course run by the Institute for Government in London. This course runs annually (for three days) and places are awarded after an open competition. It was a complete eye-opener and filled gaps in my knowledge of how policies are generated. I also learned about the opportunities available to me as a researcher to get involved via All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), select committees, inquiries and House libraries.

The second was the Parliament for Researchers course run by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). The POST team has a knowledge exchange responsibility and I have found that staff members are keen to engage with researchers in all disciplines, not just sciences and technology. This training provided an overview of the UK Parliament and included advice on working with the institution including details on Select Committees, legislative scrutiny, the House of Commons and House of Lords libraries, and writing POST notes. I also learned some practical dos and don’ts of ‘communicating your research at Parliament’, which I found enormously helpful.


What have been the highlights of your engagement with policymakers?

Three come to mind.

I was so inspired by all that I learned at the AHRC’s Engaging with Government course in March 2018 that I put as much as I could into practice immediately. In June 2018, I was invited to Downing Street by the Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds MP.

I have submitted written evidence to a number of inquiries but in September 2020 I was invited by Emma Hardy MP to give expert oral evidence to the APPG on Oracy Education.

In October 2020, I established a formal research and public policy partnership with the Department of Education. For (at least) 9 months, I will work closely with officials in the curriculum policy team (Languages and Humanities) to review research evidence from classrooms across the country. Our discussions will inform the shape and scope of future curriculum policy developments. This is particularly exciting for me as it is the outcome to which I have aspired for more than a decade.


Why should Arts and Humanities researchers seek to engage with policymakers?

I think this should be entirely the choice of the researchers – some areas of research enquiry lend themselves more naturally to policy engagement than others. There are, in my experience, definite advantages for Arts and Humanities researchers:

1. I have found policy conversations to be an example of genuine knowledge exchange, where the information provided by policy actors has contributed directly and positively to my own evolving research agenda.

2. Sharing research with colleagues in the policy sphere is excellent professional development. I have gained new skills in writing for a new audience and my network of contacts has grown significantly.

3. Research funding councils and universities are increasingly keen to capture the impact of research activity. Contributing to the development, refinement, review or evaluation of public policy is an excellent way for Arts and Humanities researchers to apply their knowledge in citable way.


What are your top tips for getting involved in the policy sphere?

1. Join Twitter and use it to connect to relevant policy organisations and individuals in your field. I’d suggest following: @UKParl_Research, @AHRCPolicy, @POST_UK, @govuk, @InstituteForGov, @SPICe_Research, @ScotParl, @SeneddResearch and @Raise_KESS. I’m @drarlenehh.

2. Look up the register of APPGs and email the secretary to join the email distribution list of the one(s) which align closest to your area(s) of research.

3. If you work for a university, enquire about internal support for policy engagement. Many UK universities are members of the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) which brings additional benefits. I have received good advice from the Policy Engagement Team at the University of Oxford.

4. Apply for the AHRC Engaging with Government course. Even if you’re not successful, you can read the course handbook here: How to Engage with policy makers: a guide for academics in the Arts and Humanities.

5. Speak up. But keep it brief. Policymakers are unlikely to come and find you – they’re busy and their priorities change quickly. Develop your digital profile by writing short comment pieces (blogs are ideal) and, if you have given media interviews about your research, make these easily accessible. I have found that it’s the clear and concise communication of key messages from your research which is vital for success in the policy arena.


Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson is a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford.


Posted 14/12/2020 11:24

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