In some senses we all seek a promised land, like the medieval fable of Hi-Brazil, a phantom paradise island. For some, this might look something like “Love Island”, a fly-on-the wall reality show currently screening on UK television (I’m pleased to confess I’ve never watched it). For others, like me, it represents something a little grittier.
In my view the operation of government, in terms of how it comes up with ideas about how to fix problems, experiments with solutions, evaluates the outcome and then modifies the solution based on experience, is much the same as the scientific process. Building the scientific process in to government and making it the backbone of how government functions is my Hi-Brazil.
Like all promised lands it will be fictional and like the medieval mariners who hunted for Hi-Brazil, CSAs like me also hunt, mostly in vain, for their nirvana. But even CSAs can sometimes spy a distant land through a thick fog and can start to believe that it might actually exist. What does this land look like? On this land, there is a completely harmonious, seamless relationship between academia and government.
By way of confirmation of the sighting of this land, The Institute for Government (IFG), with part sponsorship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, recently published a report called “How government can work with academia”. It looked at how government can improve the way it uses academic evidence and expertise in informing policy.
It is always helpful to have an external view such as that given by IFG on how the policy-science interface is working. Those looking in from the outside are often well placed to offer the challenge to government. The report was based on interviews in 10 government departments and it shed light on what works, what doesn’t work and it makes a series of recommendations. Overall, Defra fairs very well from the report and is seen as an exemplar in a number of areas including: its use of structured and responsive expert networks and committees, its systems for managing university relationships, and its approach to bringing in secondments to deliver valuable work (incl. evidence statements) including ensuring they develop insights into policy.
This is all very encouraging and is a tribute to the hard work and a gradually shifting sense of shared responsibility between the people who work in Defra – including those from my office and other scientists, analysts, social scientists and economists who are working in the same teams as policy professionals. This embedded model, which places specialists at the heart of policy-making and empowers them to have an equal share of the responsibility for policy development and delivery, is beginning to shine through in terms of better relationships with academia.
It takes years, perhaps decades, to turn around the massive ship of government, by changing cultures and ensuring that diversity of expertise is valued and built in to decision making. This shift isn’t the same in all parts of government but I think it’s particularly strong in Defra.
For example, Defra’s engagement with the new organisation responsible for overseeing the health of research in Britain, UK Research and Innovation, together with its component Research Councils, has influenced the way scientists are thinking about how they might address questions which are both scientifically interesting but which also address the issues vital to making better policy. Individuals from Defra, who have a strong sense of what great science looks like, participate in Research Council programme expert/advisory groups, knowledge exchange network events and other fora. They also work closely with senior researchers to shape their own ideas and those of the research community.
Gone are the days (I hope) when Defra’s representatives came to these discussions with an agenda. Those sitting on the policy-academia interface now include both academics and the embedded specialists who work in Defra. They are exploring cognitively complex issues which eventually leads to co-design of research and policy; one alongside the other rather than one subservient to the other. We have moved in this direction recently on pollinators, valuing natural assets and there will be more on this in landscape decisions and air quality in the near future.
This is all about having interactive, engaging and influential conversations. The short-term rewards for academics can be pathways to impact which they can exploit within the Research Excellence Framework, but the end point is much more significant. This involves better outcomes supported by a very influential set of thinkers and networkers who feel that they are part of delivering those outcomes. The outcomes are valued.
I still come across some crusty academics who see their role as a battle to keep government in check and policy specialists who just see academics as mendacious meddlers. But they are fewer and further between now and getting rarer all the time. While there is still much to do to make government think and function much more like a scientific process, I see the IFG report as a partial endorsement of progress. My Hi-Brazil is still partially in the fog but not as much as in the past.