Report

Sir Humphrey and the professors: what does Whitehall want from academics?

1 Apr 2014
Description

According to this UK survey, the majority of senior civil servants actively engage positively with academic outputs. However, it is also clear that a significant minority does not engage at all with academics and that many do so in fairly limited ways.

Overview

What do (civil service) policymakers want from academics? A seemingly simple question, and one to which you would already think we had a pretty good answer. Academia represents a very rich source of ideas, facts and theories about how public policies of all sorts might work (or not). Somewhere around 25,000 to 50,000 UK academics work on specifically policy-relevant areas – this represents a massive pool of knowledge that could help policymakers. Despite this obvious situation, actually very little is known precisely about how academia and policymakers interact.

There are some research projects that have explored the issue, but these have mostly been case studies from which it is hard to generalise. We decided to ask the whole of the British Senior Civil Service (SCS) how they relate to academic research and expertise. We invited all 4,000+ members of the SCS to fill in our online survey. About 8% responded, with a representative gender balance and spread across nearly all policy areas, which is a reasonably good sample. Moreover the variations in responses suggest there was no obvious self-selection bias – it certainly wasn’t only those positive about academic outputs that responded. We asked a series of questions about how they access and use academic research and expertise and what impact this has on policymaking.

Some of their answers were expected, and some were surprises that challenged standard assumptions. Overall, the impression from our survey is that the majority of senior civil servants actively engage positively with academic outputs. However, it is also clear that a significant minority does not engage at all with academics and that many do so in fairly limited ways.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, senior civil servants had a predilection for “pre-digested” results of research and academic expertise. Their preference for “first contact” was briefings or reports (79%), or media reports of academic outputs in newspapers and weeklies (61%) or professional journals (55%).

Publication Details
Published year only: 
2014
12
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