Having secured another round of funding, UK in a Changing Europe is expanding its substantive remit. But we have no intention of changing how we go about doing what we do. One of the reasons why UKICE has achieved whatever success it has is by underlining the utility of a simple concept: if you make it easy for people to connect with academia, they will find it useful. Equally, academics benefit from being able to test their knowledge and ideas with the public, with journalists, with parliamentarians, and with policy makers both political and official, across the UK and beyond.
So, seven years on from its establishment, what have we learned from UKICE? First that the two ‘a’s – availability and accessibility – really matter. Most academic publishing is behind paywalls and thus inaccessible to many who might want to read it. Much also takes a long time to appear in print – important for peer review, but a recipe for missing opportunities for influencing current debates.
Our platform has enabled academics to write in a different form, for different audiences. The sort of writing that works for an academic journal is a barrier for audiences who are used to getting their information from newspapers, broadcasters or online. We help academics distil their arguments down to 1000 words for our blogs – and then promote them through social media so people know they are there. That can give an early outing to findings that will go through rigorous academic processes on a longer timetable.
Availability matters too. The academics who have formed the core UKICE team know what’s involved: from morning radio slots to travelling around the country to finding ways to do interviews while getting on with whatever else they have to do. They need to be ready to brief a journalist on a deadline that afternoon – not in months’ time. That is inevitably difficult to square with the day job – and is not for everyone. But having available academics – with suitable media training – has been critical.
The second lesson is how important it is to develop and maintain a reputation for impartiality. Some people do not think UKICE is impartial. If we publish research that suggests the economic impacts of Brexit are negative, we are accused of being Remainers. If we publish something critical of short-sightedness by the EU, we are accused of being Brexiters. We try to avoid falling into the trap of saying Brexit is good – or bad. What we do is to insist that the debate on the choices it entails must be had on the basis of the best available evidence – whatever it says and however inconvenient it might be.
That is why we try to make sure that anything we publish by academics steers well clear of the polemical and is stuffed full of links. There are lots of outlets for opinion pieces by academics (and we are happy to advise) but not our pages.
That reputation is also important when we give evidence to select committees – or have private chats with policy makers. They can do political or partisan – UKICE’s value added is bringing expertise and evidence. And the fact that people in our network have become mainstays on the evidence circuit, and keep getting invited back by people in government – whoever the prime minister is – suggests that we have found a way of working that combines academic rigour and knowledge with useful and useable insight, presented in a way that works even in today’s highly polarised policy environment.
A final lesson from UKICE’s seven years is that supply creates more demand. We get more requests to help the media or attend panels, or give evidence as people get to know the work we do. And this is particularly important with policy makers inside government – they are reluctant to speak to people they do not know and do not trust to maintain confidences. They need to know that if they invite someone in from UKICE to give a briefing, it will not end up in tomorrow’s Playbook.
Critical to all this has been the creation of a communications team. Without the website, the ability to turn round reports at speed, to create and post podcasts and then publicise them, to be active on social media and to put on a wide range of events with different partners across multiple locations, the organization would not have built the reputation it has. A comms and events team may look like a diversion from research funding – but it is absolutely crucial to extracting maximum value from that research.
So in our next phase we are going to take that model, strengthen the core team and apply it to a wider range of issues about post-Brexit Britain.
That bigger agenda also means more opportunities for more academics to connect to policy makers and the wider public. The ESRC is in the process of recruiting our new senior fellows. But there are many ways in which we can collaborate beyond that kind of formal relationship.
We do our best to identify people who might want to contribute – whether through a blog, a contribution to a ‘bumper’, or a working paper. And we encourage any social scientist who wants to work with us to get in touch. There is plenty more to do, and we welcome contact with any academics keen to do it with us.
By Professor Anand Menon, Director, and Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.