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How Classicists can have more influence on public policy

“How did you get from Classics to policy?!” – a question often posed to me, often incredulously, during my internship at the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

 

And yet, far from being irrelevant to the “real” world, the ancient world cropped up again and again in the speeches made by British politicians during my placement. For the Foreign Minister, relations between Persia and Athens 2,500 years ago provide apparently applicable context to the topic of cybersecurity. Other speeches make Rome the starting point of aspects of British history. A post EU-referendum subtext can be heard in the claim by the International Trade Secretary – at a Spanish-UK business forum – that “since Roman times, trade has flourished between the Iberian Peninsula and the British Isles”. Even the Prime Minister finds it appropriate to single out Roman Britain in a reception to mark Black History month.

 

The Government, then, does not appear to find Classical antiquity totally irrelevant to modern day Britain, and Classicists working in this country can help to shape public policy by offering up their expertise. This expertise does not just lie in knowing about the types of narratives projected onto antiquity to construct a story about “our foundations”, though that is important. Classicists can contribute to conversations about slavery, migration, sexualities, religion, class, patriarchy – the list goes on.

 

Aside from the additional contribution to society that greater knowledge exchange between policy-makers and Classicists would make, an end in and of itself, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) provides a further incentive by having increased its “impact” weighting from 20% in 2014 to 25% in 2021. For Classicists reading this and thinking: “this doesn’t apply to me, my research has nothing to do with policy”, or “I want to increase my policy impact but I don’t know how”, here is a 3-part guide to increasing the policy impact of your research.

 

  1. How to find the policy relevance of your research

 

Ok, so your research doesn’t address how to make a success of Brexit or how to solve the housing crisis. The reality is that the solution to any policy problem is not found in a single piece of research, even from the disciplines that seem immediately “policy relevant”. Policy-makers need to consult a wide range of experts and stakeholders, and Classicists offer an extremely long lens through which to view social, cultural and political issues.

 

You’re more likely to be listened to if you start from the current concerns of policy-makers rather than identifying whatever particular axe you want to grind. Good places to start are the Queen’s Speech and the manifesto of the governing party. The Whitehall departments are slowly publishing their Areas of Research Interest, designed to communicate to external experts the questions that department is currently tackling.

 

You can follow Secretaries of State on Twitter, and read their announcements online; you can even sign up for alerts on particular policy areas. You can keep up to date with the All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) whose interests overlap with yours, and look up current Select Committee inquiries to get a sense of what the Government’s current policy concerns are. If you want nit-picking detail on a particular topic, Hansard provides written accounts of everything said in Parliament.

 

Policy is not limited to Whitehall (in London). You can also follow the policy concerns of your local government, which delivers public services to the local area, or the devolved administrations: the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and devolved powers in England.

 

Important too is the commentary and advice from think-tanks. Select names include the Institute for Government, Chatham House, Resolution Foundation, Policy Exchange and Institute for Public Policy Research.

 

  1. How to engage with policy-makers

 

Once you’ve established areas of policy that overlap with your expertise, you can engage with policy-makers through channels such as these:

 

  • Curate a personal network that can lead to further introductions and meetings with policy-makers. This can be through APPGs, your MP, local government, and through intermediaries such as NGOs and (in Cambridge) CSaP and History and Policy.
  • Submit evidence to Select Committees and (if appropriate) send policy briefs to MPs. For more information and how-to guides, visit the web hub designed specifically for academics by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) – don’t be put off by the name!
  • Take up training opportunities offered by POST or by your funders (both the British Academy and AHRC offer training in this area to Early Career Researchers).
  • Spend a few months doing an internship or fellowship at an organisation such as CSaP, POST or a government department at any stage of your career.

 

  1. Do’s and don’t’s

 

Finally, once you’ve located the policy relevance of your research and found policy-makers to communicate with, be sure to follow these do’s and don’t’s for effective knowledge exchange.

 

Do:

  • Communicate in simpler language than you would in an academic publication. Read some policy papers or briefs to familiarise yourself with the writing style.
  • Focus on the policy-maker’s priorities just as much as on what you want to get out of the interaction.
  • Have evidence for what you say. If you have some numbers up your sleeve, even better.
  • Respond quickly: policy timeframes are significantly shorter than academic ones.
  • Reduce the burden on the lone researcher by collaborating with your colleagues and working with your faculty to suggest institutional measures to support policy impact.

 

Don’t:

  • Expect a policy-maker to read your academic work or recommended bibliography: they are unlikely to have the time.
  • Expect credit. Your contributions may not always be publicly acknowledged, so be sure to record your interactions on ResearchFish, the REF, or on whichever platform requires you to demonstrate your “impact” credentials.
  • Launch into a tirade about the Government. It may sound silly, but it has been known to happen and creates neither policy changes nor long-term professional relationships. Social media rants can have the same effect, so think carefully about whether this is too much of a trade-off for you.

 

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2 thoughts on “How Classicists can have more influence on public policy

  1. What this says is:

    “If you want to have ‘influence’, be a government sycophant. Cosy up to people in power. Write things other people more powerful than you get credit for. Don’t criticise the government, even privately on social media, because you’ll be blackballed by the friends you want to curate”.

    So is this you convincing them to understand your POV or you tailoring your mind and mouth to meet the political status quo in the quest for empty “influence” (i.e., a token “seat at the table” you earned and maintain by your obedience)?

    When you copy other people, they have not only influence, but control, over you.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Thomas, which hits upon an important tension in engagement between academics and policy-makers. My article’s recommendations are not as you describe (for example, I don’t say “don’t criticise the government”, but I recommend avoiding “tireades” and “rants”, and I certainly don’t discourage academics from expressing their opinions privately: social media is a public, not a private, forum). Rather, my advice is that in order for engagement to be successful in the eyes of the academic – i.e. for their research to actually make its way into policy, or for policy-makers to be convinced of their ideas – they need to put themselves in the shoes of the person/people on the other side of the exchange. If my article was aimed at policy-makers who want to make better use of academic expertise, I’d tell them the same.

    If I was advocating that academics merely “copy” policy-makers or “meet the political status quo”, there wouldn’t be any point in engaging. But there is an important point to be made here about “tireades” and “rants”, which is why I ended by advising: “think carefully about whether this is too much of a trade-off for you”. If an academic is motivated by wanting to create social change by influencing policy, then using language that is going to get the backs up of the people who make policy is probably not going to help. It’s not about sycophancy: you can explain to a policy-maker how your research benefits society without banging on about how rubbish they are. But if the right to use scathing language is more important to an individual academic, that’s fine too, it just might end up being the case that if they want to see their research translated into policy, they may be disappointed.

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