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The Changing Relation between Government Policy and Research: Opportunities to Influence Policy?

Supporting Impact

Adam Crawford, LSSI Director


The Nurse Report, Ensuring a Successful UK Research Endeavour: A Review of the UK Research Councils (published in 2015), laid out the rationale for, as well as the terms and structure of the establishment earlier this year of UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) as a single ‘arm’s length’ body incorporating the seven old Research Councils, which are now Committees of UKRI rather than statutory bodies in their own right alongside Innovate UK and Research England – the research arm of what used to be HEFCE (see Figure 1).

With a combined budget of more than £6 billion and a single Accounting Officer – Sir Mark Walport – UKRI seeks to promote cross-cutting activity across Councils. It is funded through the Science Budget by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). UKRI promotes itself as having an ‘independent’ and ‘strong voice for research and innovation, both to government and internationally’.

Figure 1: UK Research and Innovation


As well as fundamentally refiguring the new research funding landscape, Sir Paul Nurse’s report also had a number of profound recommendations for Government itself. These have received less attention but, in the longer term, may have as much impact on the nature and direction of research as well as its funding and focus. Below, we highlight some of the opportunities - and few of the challenges - that this ‘quiet revolution’ in relations between research and policy may herald.

Buried within the Nurse report were a number of recommendations that all Government departments develop and provide the following:

  • a more strategic approach to departmental research and development programmes;
  • a more sophisticated dialogue with academia; and
  • the publication of documents that set out the most important research questions facing each department.

As a consequence, since the early part of 2018 many - but not yet all - Government departments have published their identified Areas of Research Interest (ARI) with which they will seek to engage with academic researchers. These documents are all available at:

They seek to set out the strategic research questions that each department is interested in engaging with the academic community and in relation to which they are keen to hear about and possibly commission relevant research. To date (October 2018), a total of 15 departmental ARIs have been published, including the following with possible interest to academic colleagues:

There are some notable departments which are yet to publish their ARIs, including International Development and the Home Office, not to mention the Department for Exiting the European Union but maybe they are a bit preoccupied!

Existing research on evidenced-based policy implementation has identified positive facilitators in the use of evidence by policy-makers as residing in personal contact with researchers; timely relevance and accessible research summaries with policy recommendations (see Box 1).

It is intended that the specification of each Government department’s ARIs will help foster the ‘better alignment of scientific and research evidence from academia with policy development and decision-making as well as better access for departments to a wider range of suppliers and more coherent engagement with researchers’. The extent to which this is realised will, in part, depend on how the academic community response to this initiative and the degree to which the ensuing dialogue is a genuine and productive one, as well as the much wider political will to utilise the research that informs such conversations and ensuing developments. What is clear is that the emerging terrain represents a further step in the increasing political desire to ‘steer’ research priorities, long noted by social commentators - see for example Gibbons et al. (1994) The New Production of Knowledge.

Box 1

A systematic review in the field of healthcare concluded:

‘The most frequently reported barriers to evidence uptake were poor access to good quality relevant research, and lack of timely research output. The most frequently reported facilitators were collaboration between researchers and policymakers, and improved relationships and skills.’

[K. Thomas et al. (2014) ‘A Systematic Review of Barriers to and Facilitators of the Use of Evidence by Policymakers’, BMC Health Services Research 14(2): 1].

In this regard, it remains uncertain whether - or the extent to which - the published ARIs of specific departments might come to inform and influence (directly or indirectly) the priorities of the research councils and UKRI itself. On this front, we are likely to know more when the various research councils publish their Strategic Priorities in 2019. As Rachel Woolley mentioned in her blog post on the Strategic Priorities Fund, fit to government department priorities is certainly one of the criteria UKRI are using to prioritise Research Council bids for SPF funding. Regardless, these new conduits for communicating with and possibly influencing policy communities provides interesting opportunities for Leeds social science scholars with policy facing research findings and interests.

To this end, the Leeds Social Science Institute (LSSI) has been working to enhance our engagement with policy by engaging with a number of departments. In 2018/19, LSSI has launched with the DWP a series of seminars linked to their ARIs and we are planning additional initiatives with other departments – including the Ministry of Justice – as well as the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) which is seeking to ensure greater research engagement with Parliamentary Select Committees in the policy formation process.

LSSI is planning a workshop in 2019 that will bring together Leeds based researchers with experience in working with and influencing national policy-makers together with representatives of key policy groups and government departments. In addition, we hope to announce further initiatives in relation to engagement with policy communities in the forthcoming months. The LSSI Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) will continue to assist efforts to coordinate and support greater policy engagement from Leeds-based researchers and enhance the influence of Leeds research.

If colleagues are interested in working with a particular department on a research question, you are encouraged to use the contact details within the relevant ARI. General comments on the format of the ARIs can be directed to the Government Office for Science via:

Colleagues interested in finding out more about, and possibly participating in, the proposed Policy Workshop should contact the Katie Barclay, LSSI Communications and Graduate Coordinator, to express an interest: