Westminster Higher Education Forum

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Evidence-based policymaking and learning from the COVID-19 response - deepening and streamlining cooperation, widening the evidence base, and improving communication

Morning, Friday, 21st May 2021


***Full-scale policy conference taking place online***

This conference will be an opportunity to consider the lessons that have been learned during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic on improving collaboration between academia, businesses and policymakers - and implications for the processes of policy formulation, debate and scrutiny going forward.


It will be bringing together policymakers with key stakeholders in higher education and research institutions, the health and social care system, businesses, local government and interest groups.


Areas for discussion include:

  • improving co-operation and the exchange of knowledge and data between policymakers, researchers and businesses
  • the involvement of key disciplines, and next steps for joining up expertise
  • improving the communication between experts and political leaders, and with the public and others affected by decisions that are made
  • what can be learned from evidence-informed policy development and implementation for the post-COVID future

The discussion is bringing together stakeholders with key policy officials who are due to attend from: BEIS; Defra; DCMS; DfE; DfI, NI; DfT; DHSC; DWP; FCDO; the Government Office for Science; HSE; HMRC; MHCLG; MoJ; NAO; ONS; The Scottish Government; the UK Statistics Authority and the Welsh Government.


The agenda

  • Evidence-based policy and the pandemic - what has been learned and implications for the future
  • Improving the system of evidence-based policymaking - priorities for both deepening and streamlining co-operation between policymakers, businesses and researchers
  • Widening the evidence base behind policy decisions - key disciplines, joining up pools of expertise and improving understanding of what works
    • Next steps for data-informed policymaking and service delivery
    • Pushing forward public policy - innovative thinking, experimentation, and evaluating what works
    • The use of interdisciplinary insights in complex decision-making
    • Harnessing local evidence bases and R&D systems for regionally-focussed policy development
  • Learning from international approaches to using evidence to inform policy
  • Priorities for improving the acceptance of evidence-based policy - communicating scientific reasoning to the public, addressing disinformation, and the role of public engagement and citizen science
  • Evidence-informed policy post-COVID-19 - lessons learned and future directions

Key areas for discussion:

The evidence-based policymaking system - strengthening co-operation between policymakers, businesses and academia, including in terms of:

  • communication - improving mutual understanding between researchers and policymakers of decision making frameworks, differing priorities, and effective ways of engagement
  • engagement with business - how can the existing links between HEIs and businesses be better harnessed to widen the scientific evidence base, and increase the input of business knowledge into the policymaking system
  • local knowledge and evidence-based policy - understanding the importance of regional variability when translating scientific insights into policy at the local level:
    • learning from the decision-making processes behind the use of tiered restrictions and lockdowns to control the spread of COVID-19
    • harnessing and strengthening local R&D systems and relationships between HEIs, businesses, and local authorities
    • harnessing support from synergies with the policy drive to improve the contribution of HEIs to local areas
  • evaluation - improving the robustness of methods for determining what works in policy
  • drawing on wider policy and support - the impact of developments such as the R&D Roadmap and ambitious government investment commitments, and The Knowledge Exchange Framework

Involving key areas of expertise - identifying priority disciplines and how they can be better integrated to add value to policy innovation, development and implementation:

  • data sciences - streamlining data sharing and strengthening the data infrastructure, as well as:
    • using data to deliver social services with greater efficiency
    • the role of data skills gaps and future uses for data modelling in key policymaking processes
    • the implementation of the National Data Strategy
  • behavioural science - evaluating the impact of public discourse around behavioural science on the success of evidence-based policy, integrating insights from the field to support the UK in recovering from the pandemic, and how its future role in policymaking can develop
  • interdisciplinary insights in policymaking - strengthening knowledge exchange between disciplines, integrating competing priorities into coherent policy, and the potential for addressing challenges of knock-on effects of evidence-based policy in different sectors
  • international collaboration - learning from the functioning of working relationships and arrangements between policymakers and multi-national research teams, and the policy outcomes produced, as well as applying internationally-sourced evidence to local settings

Improving public engagement:

  • communicating scientific insights to policymakers and the public:
    • discussing best practice in how scientific terminology and concepts are conveyed, and the provision of clarity on the reasoning behind political factors in decision-making
    • managing tensions arising from urgency and calls for decisive action with uncertainty in scientific data
  • disinformation and conspiracy theories - developments in policy and industry practice regarding social media company responsibilities and the implementation of the Online Harms Bill
  • citizen science and grassroots participation - the possibility of levelling out the playing field around scientific expertise through:
    • improved opportunities to engage in citizen science
    • improving the participation and engagement of citizens in decision-making processes
    • tailoring to meet local needs and harness regional strengths

The impact of COVID-19 - what can be learned from the way the system adapted, and what it means for evidence-based policy going forward:

  • scientific advisors and consultation - implications of heightened public and media scrutiny and visibility of experts in the policymaking and public information processes during the response
  • pressures on the evidence-based policymaking system - which have been exposed during the pandemic, including:
    • managing the differing impacts of policy across sectors, stakeholders and regions of the UK
    • political decision-making in situations where it is more challenging to be able to provide complete or clear academic evidence
    • assessing the state of trust in scientific expertise post-pandemic
  • implications for future priority areas for evidence-based policy - such as the aims of a green post-pandemic economic recovery, a just transition in climate change, and productivity and public goods in agriculture

Relevant developments:

  • the civic role of universities - the recent policy drive to grow the benefit offered to local areas by their universities:
    • improving engagement with local businesses, industry and councils
    • embedding consideration of local needs into university strategies
    • backed through major policies such as the upcoming R&D Place Strategy, and the Higher Education Restructuring Regime
  • further key strategies and frameworks, including:
    • The R&D Roadmap - setting out plans for improving the UK’s research and development system, and boosting post-pandemic recovery through science and innovation
    • The National Data Strategy - government plans for joined-up data infrastructure and capitalising on the potential of data to boost efficiency in the delivery of social services
    • The Knowledge Exchange Framework - from UKRI aiming to deepen knowledge exchange in the HE sector and increase the effectiveness of public funding in this area
    • The Industrial Strategy - seeking to strengthen UK’s infrastructure, industry and scientific capacity and channel improvements into social and economic benefits
  • the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA) - recently announced by the Government, to focus on streamlining funding for high-risk and transformational scientific research and backed by £800m
  • Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-based Policymaking - the recent commitment by the new US administration to evidence-based policymaking
  • a review of the first two years of the KEU - the parliamentary Knowledge Exchange Unit’s work in bringing together academics, universities and what they term knowledge mobilisers, as well as upcoming priorities such as working with the HE sector to improve incentives for researchers and academics to engage with the UK Parliament
  • inquiries into the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lessons that can be learned:
    • UK Science, Research and Technology Capability and Influence in Global Disease Outbreaks - the Science and Technology Committee
      • finding that poor data sharing and integration across health and social care sectors had impaired effective political decision-making during the pandemic
      • recommendations such as: 
  • greater government clarity on how scientific evidence influences policymaking and interacts with other factors such as economic and social considerations in forming policy
  • for DHSC to explain the steps that will be taken to address issues around data deficits and data sharing during the pandemic
    • Coronavirus: lessons learnt - a joint inquiry by the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees looking into the effectiveness of government action on the basis of scientific expertise it has received during the pandemic 
  • The Behavioural Economy - a new 10-point manifesto from the Behavioural Insight Team:
    • outlining how behavioural sciences could be factored into economic policymaking and help drive the post-pandemic economic recovery
    • recommendations, including:
      • using behavioural and data science to direct jobseekers towards suitable job opportunities
      • preparing for future economic shocks by developing a data infrastructure and building the evidence-base around how to best target stimulus spending
  • calls for heightened scrutiny and checks and balances around evidence-based policy decisions, including:
    • a Public Health Act - called for by the backbench COVID Recovery Group, requiring ministers to consider the impact of lockdowns or other restrictions to non-healthcare sectors such as education and the economy
    • Economic impact of coronavirus: gaps in support and economic analysis - a Treasury Committee report evaluating the economic analysis that was used to inform decisions around COVID-19-related restrictions, and criticising them for a lack of comprehensive analysis on the long-term economic consequences of the restrictions
  • developments around online harms and disinformation:
    • Social media giants agree package of measures with UK Government to tackle vaccine disinformation - including a principle that no company should directly profit from the spread of COVID-19 vaccine disinformation
    • Online Harms White Paper: Full government response to the consultation - outlining the regulatory framework for the upcoming Online Harms Bill:
      • defining disinformation that has the potential to cause significant harm to individuals as being within the scope of companies’ duty of care
      • committing to assemble an expert working group to work with Ofcom on advancing measures for addressing disinformation

Policy officials attending:

Our forums are known for attracting strong interest from policymakers and stakeholders. Places have been reserved by officials from BEIS; Defra; the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; the Department for Education; the Department for Infrastructure, NI; the Department for Transport; the Department of Health and Social Care; the DWP; the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; the Government Office for Science; the Health and Safety Executive; HM Revenue and Customs; the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government; the Ministry of Justice; the National Audit Office; the Office for National Statistics; The Scottish Government; the UK Statistics Authority and the Welsh Government. Also due to attend are representatives from AMPLYFI; D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership; ISC Research; Northumbria University; PC24; University of Bristol and University of Strathclyde.


A press pass has been reserved by a representative from Nature.


This is a full-scale conference taking place online***

  • full, four-hour programme including comfort breaks - you’ll also get a full recording and transcript to refer back to
  • information-rich discussion involving key policymakers and stakeholders
  • conference materials provided in advance, including speaker biographies
  • speakers presenting via webcam, accompanied by slides if they wish, using the Cisco WebEx professional online conference platform (easy for delegates - we’ll provide full details)
  • opportunities for live delegate questions and comments with all speakers
  • a recording of the addresses, all slides cleared by speakers, and further materials, is made available to all delegates afterwards as a permanent record of the proceedings
  • delegates are able to add their own written comments and articles following the conference, to be distributed to all attendees and more widely
  • networking too - there will be opportunities for delegates to e-meet and interact - we’ll tell you how!

Full information and guidance on how to take part will be sent to delegates before the conference



Keynote Speakers

Dr Grant Hill-Cawthorne

Head, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Tomas van den Broeke

Unit Manager Evidence, Data & Policy, ScienceWorks

Ben Taylor

Senior Policy Advisor, Open Innovation Team, Cabinet Office

Megan Lynch

Senior Policy Advisor, Open Innovation Team, Cabinet Office

Keynote Speakers

Dr Grant Hill-Cawthorne

Head, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Tomas van den Broeke

Unit Manager Evidence, Data & Policy, ScienceWorks

Ben Taylor

Senior Policy Advisor, Open Innovation Team, Cabinet Office

Megan Lynch

Senior Policy Advisor, Open Innovation Team, Cabinet Office

Speakers

Tracey Brown

Director, Sense about Science

Susan Anson

Senior Research Analyst, Trilateral Research

Professor Matthew Flinders

Department of Politics, University of Sheffield and Chair, Universities Policy Engagement Network

Dr Malcolm Skingle

Head of Academic Liaison, GlaxoSmithKline

Richard Bronk

Author of The Romantic Economist and Co-editor, Uncertain Futures

David Halpern

Chief Executive Officer, Behavioural Insights Team