Submission from the Division of Research Enterprise and Innovation at the University of Bristol to the Inquiry on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government

This submission relates to the experience of academics, and knowledge brokers within Research Professional Services at the University of Bristol. It provides insight on the science policy interface, and how that can be used to inform cross government strategic thinking.

Executive Summary

  1. Examples of best practice in the identification of strategic opportunities across Government can be seen in the science policy interface. In particular, the co-design of research by cross sector organisations to provide solutions to cross government policy needs is an effective mechanism to inform strategic thinking.
  2. There are examples of where Select Committees proactively engage with academics in order to shape inquiries. This is important in the context of their scrutiny role.
  3. Publishing of Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) both by government departments and Select Committees helps academics understand policy evidence needs and where they align with their research interests.
  4. There is scope for taking a more joined up cross departmental approach on ARIs, particularly in areas of strategic thinking. The recent launch of the ARI Database will support this and provides detail on existing research addressing ARIs.

Examples of Best Practice

1.      Academic Engagement with Cross Departmental Strategies

PolicyBristol at the University of Bristol has a track record of engaging with policy, whether in the form of shaping Committee inquiry questions, submitting evidence to government consultation/Committee Inquiries, direct engagement with government bodies, or in the form of academic policy fellowships.

Examples of academic engagement include research informing future cross-government maritime security development, as well as strengthening the evidence base for future investment in the UK Joint Maritime Security Centre. Other research has introduced a change regarding select committee witnesses to ensure a more gender balanced representation.

In a further example relevant to resilience and future thinking, the University of Bristol has worked closely with the Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA), DCMS, Digital Catapult and industry to co-design a roadmap towards a digital nation. As well as providing evidence to the UK Parliament's Select Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the 'UK telecommunications infrastructure and the UK’s domestic capability' (June 2020), Professor Dimitra Simeonidou was subsequently appointed to the UK Government Telecom Diversification Taskforce, as one of only seven specialists reporting to Lord Livingston. This taskforce produced the UK Government 5G supply chain diversification strategy, published on 30 November 2020, which resulted in an initial investment of GBP250 million to ensure growth in the supply chain of UK telecommunications infrastructure, as well as ensuring it is resilient to future trends and threats. One output was the formation of UKTIN (The UK Telecoms Innovation Network) the innovation network for the UK telecoms sector, bringing together industry, academia, and government stakeholders to catalyse telecoms R&D talent in investment, cooperation and commercialization.  What was unique was that IPA also engaged with Professional Services within the University of Bristol, led by Dr Jon Hunt, to develop commercialisation strategies to stimulate supply chains.

2.      Departmental and Select Committees’ Areas of Research Interest

Government Departments’ ARIs are a ‘window’ on to policy needs. They are a useful tool in helping academics align their research interests to policy needs.

3.      Other Forms of Policy Engagement

Parliamentary Academic fellowships

In addition to the important role of the Select Committee Secretariats, which engage with academics in the shaping of an Inquiry, strategic thinking across government can also be informed through academic fellowships. These are effective mechanisms where researchers can inform the work of a Committee. For example, Professor Roberta Guerrina (University of Bristol) is currently conducting an assessment of the impact of the work by the Women and Equalities Committee though a POST fellowship. The project is aimed at contributing to the Effective Parliament Programme by developing a methodology for evaluating the impact of committees and the effectiveness of the scrutiny work in highly sensitive areas.

Role of Knowledge Broker Networks

Based within professional services across universities are knowledge exchange and research impact professionals. Professional membership bodies such as the University Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) bring these experts together across over 100 UK universities. This network offer strength in convening power in brokering relationships between policymakers and academics. UPEN offers a dedicated contact point for policymakers, and a collective response to requests for evidence. UPEN played a significant role in facilitating engagement with academics who contributed to the Rebuilding a Resilient Britain programme of work.

Recommendations and final comments

  1. We encourage government departments and Select Committees to reach out to universities via mechanisms such as PolicyBristol and experts from university professional services to broker the science-policy interface. We also invite engagement with the wider convening powers of networks such as UPEN in order to better engage with the breadth of the research community.
  2. In terms of strategic thinking, the University of Bristol welcomes the publishing of Select Committee ARIs and instances of the joining up some of the Select Committee ARIs (for example the Women and Equalities Committee and the Home Affairs Committee on the Violence against women and girls ARI).
  3. We welcome the launch of the ARI Database; a powerful tool for both policymakers and academics in understanding alignment of research interests to policy needs.
  4. Transparency around a Committee's agenda and the way inquiries are scoped is helpful. Registering of academic expertise via the Select Committee (including suggestions for lines of inquiry) is one way to inform this.
  5. Academic fellowships (or secondments) in advising Select Committees and Government is a powerful means of academic policy engagement facilitating evidence informed policy making. Continued funding (including from UKRI) for these opportunities is very much welcomed.