CSaP: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Policy

Where the relationship between scientists and policy-makers works, it is due to the existence of strong networks, but this relationship fails more often than it succeeds. This was one of the conclusions of a 2008 report from the Council for Science and Technology (CST); a report which prompted, in part, the formation of the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) at the University of Cambridge. Dr Robert Doubleday, Director of CSaP, addressed the Policy Lunchbox network this afternoon on the work of CSaP and some of the challenges it seeks to overcome in bridging the gap between academia and policy-making.

In its report, ‘How academia and government can work together’, the CST urged Government to put greater effort into promoting networks between academics and the users of research, whilst creating greater capacity internally to both reach out to procure and to process science advice. Universities too were recognised as needing to do more to improve the way in which they interacted with Government. The report was produced against a backdrop of the development of the ‘impact’ agenda, with academics being encouraged to do more to consider how they work with stakeholders outside their institutions and how they record this, with funding beginning to be linked to the economic and social impact of the outcomes of research programmes.

In this context, CSaP was launched in 2009, funded with a £1.25 million donation, some money from the University of Cambridge and a little support from the Research Councils through funding streams for knowledge exchange activities. CSaP exists to build and sustain the links between Government and academia, whilst also seeking to build networks between academia, Government and industry.

At the core of CSaP’s work is a Policy Fellowships programme, which seeks to build the networks identified as so critical by the CST four years ago. It is undoubtedly the case that there are those in academia and in Government with negative perceptions, and possibly experiences, of engaging with one another. The Fellowships programme seeks to overcome these misconceptions and misunderstandings to develop mutual trust between the different sectors. Individuals from Government (and industry) become Fellows for two years, spending an initial five days at the University of Cambridge, participating in a series of one-to-one meetings with academics, across disciplines, from the University (predominantly, although academics from elsewhere and other professionals may also participate). Fellows may call upon subsequently the academics they have met, with these individuals then providing informal advice and expertise in relation to policy matters. The Policy Fellows often express surprise at how little the academics they meet are aware of the workings of Government and how policy is made. The scheme is therefore a valuable learning experience for both sides.

Alongside its Fellowship programme, CSaP runs events, such as seminars, lectures and conferences, focused on particular themes. A major strand of work at the moment for example is focused on understanding the future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall. CSaP is also becoming engaged increasingly in research projects, as academics begin to take the impact agenda seriously increasingly and to consider CSaP as a mechanism for enhancing the impact of their own research. As an example, CSaP has just become a major partner in an EU-funded project, EUBON, exploring how to make better use of the biodiversity data that already exists. The body of the project will focus on bioinformatics and modelling, whilst CSaP will examine how policy-makers actually use existing data and the barriers to this.

There is no doubt that the prestige attached to the University of Cambridge, along with the city’s close proximity to London and attractiveness, assists CSaP in engaging policy-makers with the work of the organisation, as Fellows or otherwise. Yet there is also no doubt that the work of CSaP provides a useful model that other universities could make use of. Others in the UK are beginning to put in place their own mechanisms to facilitate knowledge exchange. University College London for example runs a ‘Grand Challenges’ programme, identifying big questions and funding these from the top-down in an effort to coordinate research and translation across the institution.

What is clear is the with the Research Excellence Framework and other drivers behind the emphasis on impact, academics and universities need to take knowledge exchange increasingly seriously. As Rob stated in his closing remarks, it is up to learned societies, research funders and universities themselves to emphasise that operating at the science-policy interface is serious, not trivial work, which takes dedication and effort in order to make it a success.

Policy Lunchbox is an initiative organised by the British Ecological Society and Biochemical Society. Lunchbox events will return in the New Year and the programme for 2013 will be announced on the website shortly.