The challenge of making academic research feed into policy debates: three lessons to take away from the Brexit process

By Simon Usherwood, the University of Surrey
Photo: Headway/Unsplash

Academics play a significant role in public policy debates providing both governments and citizens with evidence-based advice and encouraging dialogue and curiosity over conflict and polarization in increasingly divisive public discourses. But researchers’ engagement should not be a one-way street: academics also have to make sure they listen carefully to the needs of the public and provide them with advice and research of real use. Three main lessons from the Brexit process might help us along the way.

One of the most common criticisms thrown against academics is that they are otherworldly – locked in their ivory towers, noodling away at their projects without any real thought for why and what it is good for.

Of course, the counter-argument is that it is precisely such an attitude that allows researchers to think about what one might call Big Questions, to step out of the day-to-day and look up or beyond to what might be. If the test of research is solely one of “can we use it now?”, then we risk losing much of the value of our academic practice.

But such narrow stylings miss out on the obvious middle ground that exists.

Academic research ultimately seeks to improve our understanding of the world around us, in multiple ways. Maybe not all of it can be applied straight away, but some of it can be, and so we might usefully think about how to go about that.

Much of my own work in recent years has been precisely about such activity, centring on the debate in the UK about membership of the European Union before, during and after the 2016 referendum. That experience was a key part of my interest in the PROTECT project, because as with Brexit, it is concerned with a phenomenon that will affect societies, politics and publics for a long time to come.

Photo: University of Surrey

So what might be the lessons to learn from the Brexit experience, in which academics have played a significant role?

Three main points stand out.

Firstly, academic input is valued in such debates. Academics are one of the most trusted groups in society, both in the UK and beyond. That trust is grounded in the values that so define our profession: being led by evidence, not dogma; encouraging debate, and; a constant re-checking of what we know.

When so much public debate has become politicised and divisive, the academic voice has an important role to play of offering a more measured tone and a reference point that publics can have confidence in. Indeed, it is precisely because academics have nothing to ‘sell’ to audiences, beyond their understanding, that can both be, and appear, more credible.

Secondly, different audiences need different materials. The various stakeholders that we might work with have very different situations and very different needs:

A civil society organisation might want to understand the processes of government policy-making, while the government itself might be looking for overviews of the effectiveness of different options, and the media need a one-minute clip to be part of their rolling coverage. All are legitimate uses of research, but each requires a rather particular set of skills to produce.

Academics need to recognise that if their work is to be of real use to users, then they have to think about those users’ needs when engaging with them. This includes reflecting on the level of fine detail that’s needed, the use to which it might be put and the time-frame available for all this. Academic work is important in its own right, but that doesn’t mean the world runs to its timetable.

Thirdly dialogue is essential. The temptation is to see engagement as a one-way street: the academic presents their findings and then leaves everyone else to it, to work out what to do with it all. Instead, there has to be a feedback process.

Part of that is about understanding how research fits into the practical world that it might seek to inform: as noted in the previous point, if we understand better what stakeholders might do with our work, then we might better be able to give them more of what they need.

But part of it is also about recognising that stakeholders can help to drive our research too. Understanding their needs can tell us something useful about where our work may go and how we can best include elements that speak to those agendas. At its grandest level, this might lead to co-design of research, but even at the softer end of things we can start to see how cooperation or even just discussion might be in all of our interests.

Seen in the round, dissemination and engagement needs to be an integral part of our work, and PROTECT has embraced that with its structural programme of continual interaction with key stakeholders and a willingness to embrace diverse paths of communication and discussion.

At a time when the challenges around migration have been central in many political debates, colouring even those topics – like coronavirus – that have a very limited connection to it, the importance of being active participants has never been greater.