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What role can research play in developing the skills base of the UK workforce?

  • 3 October 2023
  • In September, HEPI, with support from leading academic publishers Taylor and Francis, hosted a roundtable on how policymakers can better use research to improve the UK’s skills base.
  • This blog considers some of the themes which emerged from that discussion.

With skills given top billing in government initiatives from the Innovation Strategy to the Levelling Up White Paper, the question put to a recent HEPI roundtable dinner was an important one: how can we persuade policymakers to be more ambitious about research and scholarship in creating a highly skilled and productive UK workforce?

It was the second roundtable hosted by HEPI with leading academic publishers Taylor and Francis, following a discussion in June 2022 on the relationship between policymaking and open-access research. It was held under Chatham House rules, by which speakers express views on the understanding that they will be unattributed.

Participants, who included academics, university strategists, business leaders, policy advisers and communications experts from across the UK, suggested that lack of ambition was not necessarily the problem; ministers have regularly expressed their aim of making the UK a “science superpower” and “innovation nation”. More of an issue was persuading them to draw on evidence rather than anecdote in working out how to do it.

In a wide-ranging and rich discussion, three key themes emerged: permeability, incentivisation and story-telling.

Tackling barriers

First, permeability: barriers between different kinds of people, sectors and academic disciplines needed to be broken down, it was agreed, and movement and collaboration needed to be far easier.

Barriers to tackle included mental barriers blocking career paths; just as PhD students needed to have broader ambitions than becoming a professor, those who did move from academia into industry needed to be confident that there was a route back if they wanted one, without having to face disapproval from academic colleagues.

Flexibility, breadth of knowledge and ability to collaborate were essential since it was impossible to know what skills would be needed for the future – especially since the arrival of advanced AI. It was suggested that listening to a broader range of voices – including younger generations and people from different ethnicities and backgrounds – would be important in identifying future skills needs.

Inspiration and incentives

The roundtable heard examples of initiatives that were bringing people together across disciplines and sectors.

One was The Birmingham Innovation District, linking Aston University, Bruntwood SciTech and the city council to create a tech and health innovation hub. Another was AstraZeneca’s efforts to collaborate with academia, governments, other companies, patient groups and scientific organisations, significantly improving its R&D productivity.

The next point was incentives. It was agreed that if universities are to be encouraged to collaborate with industry they needed to be incentivised to do it – something not achieved by the current funding model. They could also create incentives themselves – even at undergraduate level — such as the compulsory Power Skills module at Aston University, which involves every student studying sustainability, digital skills and entrepreneurship.

The power of stories

Finally, scholars needed to be supported to tell stories about their work that would make it resonate with policymakers and the general public. Communication skills, it was suggested, should be made a mandatory part of academic training.

One speaker warned: “We need scientists to tell stories that are compelling and trustworthy because one of the biggest challenges that we’re going to have in the future is the noise, the misinformation and the disinformation that are going to be major issues for UK science and medicine.” 

And it was not only important to tell stories around new research but to recognise and draw on what was already out there.

Arts and humanities

Here, those specialised in more story-telling-based disciplines can help, and another theme to emerge from the roundtable was the important contribution to be made by arts and humanities scholars, despite recent emphasis by government on promoting STEM subjects.

One speaker suggested that a historian should be involved in every policy decision to help give valuable context.

Another suggested that there was a need for more people in the civil service trained in behavioural science and ethics. Culture change was easier to achieve in the civil service than among government ministers, it was pointed out, and attention needed to be paid to ensuring that people in civil service roles had a general scholarly approach, perhaps with chief scholarly advisers alongside the specialist chief scientific advisers now linked to individual departments.

While those working in the civil service from a scientific background often came armed with Phds and high-level research qualifications, those who had entered from an arts and humanities background had often ended their academic education at undergraduate level and lacked the same grounding in sifting evidence and conducting detailed analysis, it was argued. This could be more of an issue than subject speciality.  One suggestion was that targets for arts and humanities graduates in the civil service needed to be in place, just as they were for science specialists.

Taking responsibility

But where does responsibility for action lie? Ministers can do little to generate more policy-minded behavioural science graduates – that is down to autonomous universities. Yet nor should universities be blamed for failing to equip graduates with the skills needed by industry since their job is to produce open-minded scholars, able to learn.

It was felt that short courses, further education and the introduction of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement could help here, topping up the skills of graduates and others as needed.

It was also suggested that setting up a framework for discussing skills, in terms of fundamental skills, applied skills and translatable skills could be useful – as could creating an enabling environment, encouraging people to think about what the future application of their research might be while recognising that innovation was not a linear process.

At the start of the discussion, participants were asked whether the challenges faced were about people – ensuring the capability to translate research — place – bringing people together — or process – providing incentives and metrics that measured impact. The conclusion seemed to be that all three needed attention.

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1 comment

  1. It’s fascinating to read about the discussion at the HEPI roundtable regarding the role of research in developing the skills base of the UK workforce. The points raised by participants shed light on critical aspects that can influence policy decisions and, consequently, the nation’s future.

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