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Universities need to do more to support impactful researchers

For anyone who has worked in or on policy engagement, the image of the furiously busy policymaker will be all too familiar.

In training, case studies and even in the academic literature, this image persists: a policymaker, inundated with different priorities, brain saturated with information, inbox filled to the brim, running frantically from one meeting to the next, trying to get as much as possible done in difficult circumstances, and with limited resources.

Although I suspect it is less common, there is also an image of the academic: busy with research and teaching, they meet multitudes of students and they mark piles of essays. The academic has also has limited resources, (unless they have a handy grant), but great depth of expertise.

Much of the thinking about engaging with policymakers focuses – rightly, I think – on how to make life easy for our “furiously busy policymaker”. We write differently, more concisely, more simply, and more in stories than in facts. In short, we tailor what we do to the concerns and priorities of policymakers. There is nothing wrong with that – indeed, it seems a sensible thing.

It does come with a major risk, though – that we forget the competing priorities and trade-offs that academics – particularly early career academics – face. At its heart, the academic career is founded on three core principles: teaching, research and (invariably at some stage) administration. Impact and policy engagement only really get a look in because of REF, Pathways to Impact and because of institutional strategies that prioritise some of these activities. But it is far from being the primary goal of traditional academic careers.

To put it another way, the “publish or perish” mantra still abides: if one were to give an academic advice on their career it would be unwise and unfair to suggest that delivering policy impact should take priority over teaching, or winning a research grant or writing up that journal article. These are the core elements of the academic’s career: they are the things that the head of department, the interview panel, the promotions panel all understand. Impact – although now far more popular than once before – is still less understood, and still less important.

If we are to make it easier for research and policy to come together in meaningful, frictionless ways, then we need to focus on this. It makes little sense to focus so heavily on policymaker incentives without thinking about the incentives of academics too. For all too often, policy engagement is something done fleetingly, or in the margins, or because an academic happens to enjoy it. It is, in my experience, rarely the main focus of an academics role – except for the growing cohort of “Third Space” academics. For the vast majority, there may well be no career benefit, or at least very little. It may well mean marking those essays late(r) at night than one would like.

And yet, the wider system wants academics to do more, not less. The only way to fix this is to find ways to reward policy engagement throughout an academic’s career, to ensure that some time for policy engagement is protected, and that, ultimately, it becomes as legitimate an activity as publishing a journal article.

The way forward, then, is for universities to embrace this new strand of academia, to create new pathways and new structures around it. That may be challenging – the career structure of the academic in the 21st Century is not far removed from the career structure of the academic decades, if not centuries ago – but it is essential.

Dr Benedict Wilkinson is Associate Director at the Policy Institute and leads the institute’s portfolio of research on Defence and Security Policy and Communities and Opportunity. He is highly experienced in translating research into impact, and is Principal Investigator on the ESRC’s Impact Acceleration Account at King’s College London, as well as leading the impact activities of a suite projects that cut across a diverse range of policy areas. For further reading on this, David Willetts wrote a report for The Policy Institute on Transforming the UK's R&D Performance. You can read more about this here.


Posted 14/01/2020 09:04

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