From catalyst to conduit
We’ve learnt a lot since we started MetroPolis, our think tank at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Some of that is captured in glorious pictorial technicolour in the biannual magazine we publish; projecting the energy, the connections and the conversations that we have brokered and encouraged. I sometimes think of MetroPolis as fulfilling a similar function to a University press office: taking academics out of their comfort zone, introducing them gently into a world we are more familiar with than they may be and supporting their excellent work in order for it to get noticed. Just as the press team are good at understanding what the media want, so we have to summarise, contextualise and introduce into the bewildering world of APPGs, committees, commissions, other think tanks and the evolving institutions of devolution.
We’ve pulled together a lot of our learning in a new handbook, written by former Independent leader writer Jack O’Sullivan, who has been very helpful to us in sharpening our thinking and consolidating our sense of purpose.
So, as well as publications we do a lot of events; like lectures, seminars and networking forums. We are active in meeting people, not only being the catalyst for a few moderately interesting discussions, but being a committed participant in detailed policy processes that can lead to real change; a conduit for progress and transformation.
None of this is happening in a vacuum. At a university level, we have worked hard at engaging with colleagues from across Manchester Metropolitan; we have a series of funded Chancellor’s fellows from all faculties in the University (our Chancellor is Lord Mandelson, by the way), and we are constantly engaged in ensuring good work gets to have a real impact on real live priorities. That spans from social science around criminology and the effectiveness of personalised public services, to the hard science of fuel cells and industry 4.0.
Part of that learning has been to be push/pull, rather than push, push. To comprehend the external environment and maintain a dialogue with it, not just throwing research out there in the hope some of it sticks. It’s also been a factor in how the core team is made up. I work in the External Relations directorate (as do our press office and our Director of Public Affairs), while other colleagues like Sam Gray bring a welter of experience of the external research landscape, while Professor Chris Fox is engaged himself in winning bids and is an active researcher. Into that we’re blessed too that the University has supported us to recruit wisely. Eva Kagiri-Kalanzi brings with her great experience connecting science and policy from within the much lauded education system of Finland. While our wider academic network internally can only benefit from the experience of working alongside Ashwin Kumar, who has joined the Policy Evaluation and Research Unit after a glittering career in the civil service and then latterly with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
As you’d expect from a Manchester-based project all of us in the MetroPolis network devote our energies towards the emerging architecture of metropolitan regional government. So far, as the pieces fall into place, that’s informed how researchers have been able to contribute to immediate policy delivery around the mayoral agendas, particularly building thriving communities and developing a low-carbon economy.
That spirit of co-operation, of developing a positive academic culture with an eye on the policy impact agenda, is happening all over the country. As the university sector wrestles with an existential funding review and targets to quite rightly, widen participation, we’ve seen the development of a healthy debate about the role of the civic university in their adjacent communities. Into this mix has emerged the University Policy Engagement Network, of which we are excited about becoming an active and enthusiastic member as it grows and our learning expands.
It’s important too to state that we are resolutely non-partisan, but intense observers of the shifting party landscape in the UK. Some of the team are politically active, myself included, but we have lines of dialogue open to anyone who appreciates the importance of evidence-based policy making. Some ideas feel like they are truly of a moment, I think this is one of them.
Michael Taylor is the Head of Regional Affairs at Manchester Metropolitan University and a Co-convenor of the MetroPolis think tank.
Posted 21/05/2019 17:05Back