Can Policy Fellowships help shape the future of Science-Policy Interface collaborations?
Published on 5 December 2023
Blog by Dr Caroline Verfuerth at CAST & Cardiff University and Dr Laura de Vito at the University of the West of England (ACCESS Leadership College Fellow). Both reflect on their fellowship placement at the Welsh Government.
At a time where we grapple with complex poly- and perma-crises such as the climate emergency, cost of living crisis, and biodiversity crisis, rapid yet adequate responses are crucial. This requires effective collaboration between policymakers and the scientific community to co-produce solutions that can address the urgent socio-ecological challenges.
The importance of social science is becoming increasingly apparent. A landmark report by the House of Lords on Net Zero (2022) estimated that one third of emission reductions requires people to adopt new technologies and change their lifestyles. Similarly, policies need to be accepted by people in order to be effective; or else they can result in backlash as the recent protests against the ultra-low-emission zone (ULEZ) in London has shown. Social science plays a key role in co-producing knowledge that reduces the risk of backlash and increases the effectiveness of policies.
Social sciences’ insights can provide decision-makers with evidence and methods to navigate complex challenges, identify solution pathways and help to put people at the heart of effective policy making. Policy fellowships, where an academic is fully embedded within a government unit, provide unique opportunities for co-producing evidence and for cross-learning at the science-policy interface. Reflecting on our recent experiences as Policy Fellows in the Welsh Government, we contend that these mechanisms are effective to increase and, potentially, improve two-way knowledge exchange between policy makers and social scientists, as well as being valuable experience from a personal and professional point of view.
Policy Fellowships are not one-size-fits-all
There are different models that allow researchers to work closely with policymakers with different degrees of embedment within policy organisations. These range from, for example, joining advisory boards, creating partnerships for the delivery of research projects, secondments, and policy fellowships. Policy Fellowships typically allow a researcher to work within a host organisation (e.g. government department) for an extended period of time (e.g. 12-24 months). Working in a policy environment as a fully embedded researcher can be a new experience for many academics: it can be an opportunity to test academic research in live policy contexts and to gain a deep understanding of the ways of working and ethos of civil servants. This is bound to lead to more impactful research and could contribute to bridging the gap between evidence and policy. At the same time, however, researchers can face challenges when moving to a different organisational culture, ways of working, and expectations.
Although fellowship programmes may vary, they share common challenges and opportunities and allow researchers to gain profound insights into government processes.
During our fellowships, we went through organisational changes, such as high job turnover and departmental restructures, and different ways of working. In order to support policymakers to tackling complex issues in the field of environmental and sustainable development, it can be a challenge to navigate the pressures of an academic career to produce research while being embedded in two different cultures (academia and policy). Nonetheless, there are common lessons that we can draw.
Key for us was clearly communicating reciprocal expectations and needs when defining the focus and scope of the research is crucial to achieve the best outcome for both sides and improve knowledge exchange. This is particular important when working within government departments as, at times, priorities and projects shift quickly in response to policy demands and researchers need to be attuned and adaptive to such changes to keep their research relevant. Being part of day-to-day conversations and experiencing the challenges and opportunities that civil servants face every day gave a more strategic understanding of the organisation’s strategic priorities, which in turn helped us to mitigate some of these challenges.
We all had great experiences and gained invaluable insights during our Policy Fellowships. While Fellowship programmes might not be for everyone, our key message is that they are particularly valuable for those seeking to build impact with their research and work with policy makers in the future.
Key values of Policy Fellowships:
- Policy fellowships effectively integrate social science research practice across the entire policy cycle.
- Policy fellowships should be viewed as a mutually beneficial exchange that equally advantages both host organisations and researchers. Clearly articulating the additional value and impact of these programmes is essential for their long-term sustainability and growth, benefiting not only the organisations but also the researchers involved.
- Policy fellowships establish an environment conducive to fresh collaborations and shared learning experiences.
For more info read their report Policy fellowship schemes as a vehicle for co-production – insights from Welsh Government fellowships