26 April 2017

Gavin Costigan, Director of Public Policy at the University of Southampton, gives his perspective on the new CaSE Evidence report

This new report by Anusha Panjwani at CaSE seeks to address some of the difficult issues of the supply and demand of evidence for Government policy making. In a perfect world, Government departments would always be clear about what research they are after, only commission research where the data does not already exist, and then use best practice for procuring that research to ensure that the right evidence of the right quality is produced in the right timescale to inform policy.

Civil Servants know this. But knowing it doesn’t make it any easier. Government is big, complicated and fragmented, and with major reductions in staffing levels over the last few years, working under ever more time pressure, this is not something they can achieve alone. Indeed, the reductions in funding for central government departments in the last decade means that they cannot afford to directly fund all the research they need.

So how is this to be addressed? The CaSE report focuses on the Government side of the problem. Recommendation 6 talks about best practice guidance for the procurement of Government research. This has to be right – with examples of both extremely good and decidedly poor research procurement easy enough to identify. Recommendation 7 describes the need for a cross-departmental database of Government research, to maximise the value of what has already been paid for, and avoid loss of corporate memory. Again, this could be hugely valuable, although one should not underestimate the difficulty and cost of building such a database and then keeping it updated.

But even if both of these recommendations could be swiftly implemented, the demand for scientific evidence from government will still outstrip the supply of that evidence funded by departmental research budgets. Research funded by government departments is of course only a small proportion of publicly-funded research in the UK. And a database of Government research, important as that is, will only represent a small fraction of available research evidence on a given topic. There is some fantastic expertise available within departments, but vastly more available outside

The CaSE report correctly identifies that increasing use of evidence by Government critically depends on increasing the supply of that evidence. I would argue that to really achieve the step change in evidence supply, the UK Government needs a much closer partnership with the UK academic community – who have the expertise, knowledge of previous research and access to research funds.

Whilst it won’t suit all, there are many in the academic community who would welcome closer working with Government, who passionately care that the evidence they produce is used to help make the world a better place. There is the basis to build this partnership, but like so many things, it will take sustained effort and commitment, and not just from the Government, also from universities.

Due to previous Government decisions, money is no longer the barrier it was. Impact Case Studies in REF can directly reward universities whose research has led to policy outcomes. Research Council grant applications now expect a pathways to impact statement, with impact activities costed in from the start. Some of the Research Councils have Impact Acceleration Accounts, and others have small grants specifically targeted at impact activities, including helping provide evidence for policy-making

So money is available, but money is not enough in itself. Whilst there are academics with decades of experience working in partnership with Government, there is not enough understanding across in the whole academic community of either what evidence Government wants, or how Government works and uses that evidence. Two recommendations in the CaSE report will help this. Recommendation 5 is that each departmental Chief Scientific Advisor should publish an annual update of their department’s “research areas of interest”. Defra have recently done just that, and other departments are likely to follow. This information could be really useful for Universities to plan future areas of research, particularly if UKRI and the Research Councils use this information to target some of their funding. Recommendation 9 talks about an expanded exchange and secondment programme into Government departments – again, a great way for the academic community to understand how Government uses evidence, and therefore target the way they produce and present it.

This CaSE report indicates some of the things that Government needs to do. But action is also needed in the university sector, to move from high quality partnerships involving single academics, to a more comprehensive and systematic way of responding to Government research needs. Some universities are developing structures to do just that, though most are still in their infancy, and there is much more to do.

Change is hard, but it is possible – we just need to work together.

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