Bringing More History into Policy

Dr Henry Irving, Senior Lecturer in Public History at Leeds Beckett University, reflects on how to bring more historical expertise into policymaking.

Here is a fun experiment. Open Google in a new window and search “say scientists”, limiting your results to News and using the sort function to limit to ‘the UK’. Now do the same search for “say historians”. Do you notice any differences?

Writing as a historian with an active interest in policy engagement, I find it fascinating to see the way my discipline is discussed in the media. On a deeper level, the value of history to policymaking has been championed in recent years. The British Academy and Arts and Humanities Research Council have both encouraged historians to make more of their findings, establishing schemes like the AHRC’s Engaging with Government course to build confidence.

The History & Policy network has also played a key role in establishing contacts and disseminating findings. It began life as a website publishing short articles summarising the policy implications of recent historical research. The website remains central, but now sits alongside other initiatives. These include seminar series with government departments, policy forums and training events.

This context has led to tangible changes. Consider the data collected for REF 2014. Analysis by the Royal Historical Society found that 34 per cent of impact case studies in the history unit of assessment claimed a policy impact. This was almost equal to those claiming an educational impact (35 per cent but disaggregated into ‘education’ and ‘schools’) and more than those claiming media (29 per cent) or digital (6 per cent) impacts.

But, ten years after the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology called for more history to provide ‘new perspectives on current problems’, my Google search suggests that problems remain. The British Academy and History & Policy still diagnose a disconnect between professional historians and policymakers. And, as Rosie Anderson noted on this blog, academics with an arts and humanities background can still feel cut out.

This cannot simply be attributed to disciplinary reticence. Historians have long advocated meaningful public engagement and the results of REF 2014 suggest many have a real interest in policy matters. This is certainly true of my own colleagues, who champion the useful contribution that history can make in their research and teaching. This spans from work on food to LGBTQ* heritage, fire safety regulations to my own work on wartime recycling.

In my view, there are two (well worn) barriers to greater engagement:

  1. The first is that historians are trained to view their research as a process of interpretative analysis, drawing on fragmentary evidence from a past that can never fully be understood. It is hard to translate this into neat data or recommendations. And we know that can be a significant obstacle.

  2. The second concerns time. The relationships involved in policy engagement take time to establish and research timescales rarely map onto those of policymakers. Historical research itself is a time-consuming process, extending over years not months. Because of this, a lot of historical policy engagement tends to be reactive, lessening the opportunity to actually shape decisions.

Most of the tools needed to overcome these barriers are already in place, although resources could be better allocated to ensure opportunities are spread more evenly. Initiatives like the AHRC Engaging with Government course and British Academy’s new Innovation Fellowships are a start, but much more could be done to promote and facilitate policy engagement beyond Whitehall.

Historians like me can also learn something from the ‘say scientists’ Google search: it is easier to initiate engagement when working as part of a team, drawing on a field of existing knowledge to frame problems. Perhaps what is needed is a more collaborative model of engagement, more focused on recommendations than sharing individual findings.

Henry Irving is Senior Lecturer in Public History at Leeds Beckett University. He is a historian of the British Home Front during the Second World War and an active member of the History & Policy network.


Posted 18/01/2022 11:04

Back