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Does open access to research provide the potential for improvements in UK governmental policy development?

  • 10 August 2022
  • By Paul M. Marshall

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Paul M. Marshall, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Careers & Enterprise), University of East London.

The argument that improved access to cutting-edge research could provide improved policymaking seems self-evident, but I would suggest the reality is slightly more complex.

John Willinsky, in his 2006 book, The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship, provides an excellent example of how, in 2003, the lead piece published in the New Yorker’s ‘Talk of the Town’ effectively dismantled US Government policy which utilised student test scores as the single measure of school effectiveness. Having undertaken a simple internet search, the author of the piece, Malcolm Gladwell, based his entire critique on an article published two weeks earlier in an open access journal from Arizona State University which challenged the reliability of the tests upon which the entire Government policy rested. 

Taking Willinsky’s example and linking it to the UK context, a simplistic argument proceeds that with university research available via open access, the wealth of information provided would naturally lead to improved policy outcomes: with civil servants having Googled the latest research and passed it through to the red boxes, and Ministers absorbing and delivering improved policy outcomes as a result. 

Current political realities, however, mean that policymakers simply do not have the time to engage in this exercise of gathering and filtering the vast amounts of research produced, however simple the method for accessing it. Even if they did, Ministers simply don’t have time to invest in reading it. There is also a level of trust with academia implicit in this approach which we would be foolish to take for granted in the current political environment. 

Willinsky himself found in his early experiments in attempting to improve public engagement in the policy consultation process, that even when participants were provided with a bank of information upon which to inform and shape their opinions, it sometimes went completely unread. Personal opinion triumphed over research-informed debate.

As Executive Director of the 1994 Group of Universities, my first-hand experience of education policymaking during the Blair, Brown and Cameron Governments, suggests that whatever their stated best intentions to deliver research-based policy, Ministers were often driven by the need to find simple, fast, solutions to often extremely complex problems. To achieve this, they sought short, clear briefings that presented clear answers, delivered quickly. 

The reality was that these policies were often developed further to a phone call and a request: ‘I need an answer now – in a language I can understand – what can we do about X?’ rather than any extensive, research-informed, policy development process. 

In the reality of the heat of national politics, a policy was often shaped by a timely interjection of informed opinion, backed up with a hastily written policy proposal and sometimes based on a statistically insignificant survey, rather than an extensive debate shaped by a wide-ranging analysis of complex academic research. 

Is this the right way to develop policy? No, it isn’t. There is a vast amount of information contained in the world-leading research produced by UK academics that goes unrecognised in this process. There must be ways to remove the potential undue influence of informed opinion of the few with the distilled expertise of the wider academic community.

As Chief Executive of the Association of Business Schools, I attempted to shift this dynamic, and sought to expand the influence and relevance of business and management research through improved mechanisms of direct engagement between academics, business and national government. The Small Business Charter, launched in 2014 with the direct Ministerial support of Lord Willetts, and backed by Lord Young, The Prime Minister’s Advisor on Enterprise, was an example of this shift in focus. A bold attempt to connect Government policymaking with a wealth of untapped academic expertise and intended to unleash the potential of the UK small business community. Today, I am proud that with the continued direct support of the Treasury, the Small Business Charter remains an active and effective tool uniting government, policymakers, academics and business representatives with a powerful and growing national network of leading business schools. 

Looking overseas to Australia, the James Martin Institute for Public Policy provides another model for direct academic involvement in policy making. 

The James Martin Institute was launched in 2019 as an independent, non-partisan policy institute (and led by another contemporary UK mission group CEO, Libby Hackett), funded by a significant grant from the New South Wales Government in partnership with the University of Sydney, Western Sydney University and the University of Technology Sydney. The Institute is working with the New South Wales Government on a wide range of policy areas, developing policy solutions through a partnership-focused, boldly reimagined policy development process. 

At the earliest stage of policy development, the Institute brings together carefully constructed teams of leading academics, civil servants and external experts to utilise this combined expertise to co-create policy. Through a carefully supported process, a shared understanding of a common problem leads to trust being earned between parties and mutual solutions agreed upon directly informed by the latest research.

The Institute is young, but its research-informed partnership approach is already delivering impact, directly influencing government policy in areas such as the gender pay gap and boosting resilience in rural and remote education of the state. 

Does open access to research provide potential improvements in UK governmental policy development? Well, as Willinsky ably demonstrated in the US context, it certainly has the potential to make the process easier and more democratic: that is to be fully supported, encouraged, and celebrated. 

My experience, however, of the day-to-day reality of working in the UK political system suggests that the provision of unending amounts of unfiltered information alone, as good as it is, will not alone generate revolutionary improvements. For that to happen requires policymakers in government, as well as those who work alongside them, to recognise the potential weakness of the current system and fundamentally change the policy development process itself. There are different ways to ensure that academics and their research are directly involved in developing policy. I suggest we should all watch with great interest the experiment currently underway in New South Wales and consider what aspects we might be able to utilise in a UK context.  

HEPI and Taylor & Francis recently hosted a roundtable dinner on open access publishing and policymaking. This is the latest blog is a series:

  • Read ‘Open Access 101’ by Dr Fiona Counsell, Head of Open Access Operations & Policy at Taylor & Francis, here.
  • Read ‘Open Access: The end or the means’ by Victoria Gardner, Director of Policy at Taylor & Francis, here.
  • Read ‘The Open Access Opportunity: Building the Third Space’, by Matt Flinders, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield here.
  • Read ‘Answering the Challenges to Open Access: The “5 Cs”’, by Sarah Chaytor, Director of Research Strategy & Policy at UCLhere.

Taylor & Francis are on LinkedIn @Taylor & Francis Group and Twitter @WeAreTandF.

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1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    I agree that there now is too much academic research on many issues which has lead to “overwhelm”, when it comes to ensuring good research is turned into policy, as the key decision makers do not have the time and space to adequately evaluate it.

    There is a clear danger that either the “status quo” will be supported for too long or that the best “lobbyists” will hold sway.

    In many cases, such as climate change and the dangers of smoking to health, the best lobbyists have been those who support no change.

    Part of the solution is to limit the amount of research being done, ( too much is being spent on duplicate / poor / inappropriate research) along with a better way of “scoring” what research is the most relevant to the issue and what the consensus is when it comes to the policy changes being promoted.

    There is a greater need to focus on fewer issues in research so that multi disciplinary / multi national teams can be set up to deliver the best results – as seemed to happen, eventually, with Covid research into effective vaccines.

    This is no easy matter but looking at less usually delivers more.

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