How can arts and humanities research influence public policy?

The Big Ben in London and the Houses of Parliament

An overview of opportunities for researchers in the arts and humanities to contribute to public policy.

The last few years have seen substantial changes in the UK policy environment: changing administrations, priorities, even government departments. Academic input into and understanding of these changes is vital. And yet, public policy is an often-forgotten part of the impact agenda for the arts and humanities, and likely feels very new for some. For others, it has been their bread and butter for years. Policymakers are crying out for input from academics to aid development of key policy areas.

Over the last few years the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has been building up a significant public policy presence alongside colleagues across UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and there are a growing number of opportunities for researchers to delve into what policy impact has to offer, with some launching only recently. So whether you’re looking to work directly with government, or looking to develop the policy impact of your research, there are a few options to consider.

Fellowships – a cross-UKRI endeavour

While a number of funded programmes will look to influence policymakers, the policy fellowship schemes offer something quite different – an opportunity for early and mid-career researchers to work directly within the machinery of government. AHRC has funded researchers to work with the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) for several years, and recently ran a similar scheme with the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS).

View of Cardiff Bay and the Welsh Assembly

Welsh Assembly, Cardiff Bay. Credit: AmandaLewis, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

We’re now working with colleagues across UKRI on the recently launched UKRI Policy Fellowships scheme where arts and humanities researchers will have the opportunity to work directly with a range of government departments and administrations. We’re continuing our collaboration with DCMS and FCDO, but also launching new fellowships with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities (DLUHC), Cabinet Office, and the Welsh Government.

Fellowship opportunities include policy areas such as cultural placemaking, skills and cultural education, cyber diplomacy, design and knowledge translation, and climate change and cultural heritage. Successful fellows will be tackling high-priority policy challenges as well as carrying out some of their own research.

The programme has knowledge exchange built in, with fellows being supported to take their policy learnings out into their research organisations and beyond. They’ll also join a wider cohort of current and previous fellows who are still bringing their academic expertise to bear on policy challenges after their fellowships have ended. Find out more about the UKRI Policy Fellowships 2023 funding opportunity, the application deadline is 20 April 2023.

Policy fellowships offer an exciting opportunity to work within Whitehall and the devolved administrations. But there are other policy settings where arts and humanities insights are fantastically valuable, and we’re continuing to consider and develop new opportunities.

MANIFEST is a pilot initiative with the Civil Service Policy Lab which is evaluating artistic approaches and effects relevant for policy by placing artists directly within policy teams.

You may have also seen the Economic and Social Research Council announce the new Parliamentary Thematic Research Leads in collaboration with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. What might placing an arts and humanities researcher in parliament achieve? Similarly, what might it look like to have arts and humanities expertise at the heart of local government?

Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement have some really interesting examples of researchers working with local councils, authorities, and regional mayors. As we consider the levelling up agenda and building up outside of London, opportunities like this become ever more important and AHRC is continuing to explore new funding opportunities like these.

The big investments

As well as opportunities for individuals, AHRC has also funded several large policy-focused programmes. Our policy and evidence centres (PECs) are perhaps the largest and most visible AHRC investments in the public policy space. AHRC currently funds two PECs:

  • the Creative Industries PEC, which provides independent research and policy recommendations for the UK’s creative industries and has recently had its next five years of funding confirmed
  • the Modern Slavery and Human Rights PEC, which looks to enhance understanding of modern slavery and transform the effectiveness of law and policies designed to address it. In addition to conducting their own policy-focused research, they also commission research directly

Alongside the PECs is the Centre for Cultural Value, which looks to build a shared understanding of the differences that arts, culture, heritage and screen make to people’s lives and to society. While obviously targeting very different research areas, all three centres represent a locus of activity for the policy or research interface and have a host of materials available.

But it’s not just investments from large funds like the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund or UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund that are having policy impact. The Pandemic and Beyond project was established during the COVID-19 pandemic and brought together an enormous range of arts and humanities projects that were focusing on responses to the pandemic, a significant volume of which were policy focused.


Perspective view of the Belfast City Hall at Donegall Square

Belfast City Hall. Credit: RUBEN RAMOS, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

There are other opportunities to engage with how research impacts policy that don’t require the time investment of a fellowship. For several years now AHRC has offered the Engaging with Government (EwG) course, where researchers spend three days learning more about policymaking and how they can adapt their research to be policy focused.

For students there is the UKRI Policy Internships scheme, which offers UKRI-funded doctoral students the opportunity to spend three months in one of a variety of policy hosts including central government, the devolved nations, and a number of public bodies.

The EwG course has been delivered by the Institute for Government who have also developed a helpful guide for academics looking to engage with policy.

For support from peers in research, there’s also the University Policy Engagement Network (UPEN), which is open to a wide range of research professionals, including research managers, researchers, and research office staff, and UPEN has also recently launched a new subgroup for arts and humanities.

Of course, there are many other examples of AHRC-funded research intersecting with public policy. A quick search on Gateway to Research (using ‘policy’ as a search term) reveals 464 active AHRC-funded awards, including networks, fellowships, and research grants. So clearly there is already a large community of arts and humanities researchers out there working towards policy impact. Yet the message we often hear from policymakers is that they don’t always know who to turn to.

The Parliament website holds the list of the Select Committees and All Party Parliamentary Groups, those groups within parliament which scrutinise the work of government departments or have a particular policy focus. It’s well worth a look through to see if there’s a group that aligns with your research area. There are regular calls for evidence when these committees run inquiries, to which anyone can submit a response. But it’s not just central government that needs academic advice. Regional administrations, local mayors, and city councils would all welcome input from experts. Get in touch with them. Build relationships. Respond to consultations.

There is plenty more we could say about public policy and AHRC’s ambitions in this area, and many other amazing projects that aren’t mentioned in this blog. Engaging in the policy arena is a really exciting way to take academic work in a new direction, and the arts and humanities add an incredible amount of value to the political conversation.

If you’ve never considered whether your research could have policy impact do look at the opportunities mentioned, especially the current policy fellowships programme. It can also be hugely rewarding to make connections with your local MPs and political leaders though inviting them to your events or simply reaching out to their office to highlight your research.

Within AHRC we’re always looking for great examples of policy impact so if you have something that fits the bill then do get in touch. And do keep an eye open for new opportunities from AHRC and our partners across UKRI. We’re keen to keep building up and demonstrating the value of policy impact, but that only works if academics and their research partners get involved. In short, watch this space.

Top image:  Credit: mammuth, E+ via Getty Images

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