Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Unlocking the value of universities for the nation: could Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) be the key?

  • 18 December 2023
  • By Kathryn Oliver
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Kathryn Oliver (LinkedIn), Professor of Evidence and Policy at LSHTM and co-Director of Transforming Evidence (Twitter/X). Between 2019-2023 she was seconded to the Government Office for Science where she supported evidence use and science capability mechanisms, working with departments to optimise the Areas of Research Interest.

Policymakers want to get maximum value from the science system. Government invests in science and research, much of which, in the UK, is conducted in universities and in public sector research establishments (PSREs). A good return on this investment would be research which contributes towards a growing economy, supports technological innovation and industrial activity, and supports more effective services. One of the levers government has to incentivize research activity along these lines is funding, such as through the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) – amongst others. Although the impact of these funds is not completely clear, many positive claims have been made about the economic and social benefits which have arisen.

Knowledge exchange funding, such as the HEIF, has been used by universities to vastly expand their scope of activities around commercialization, licensing and knowledge transfer. For example, a recent review identified over 1900 separate initiatives aiming to promote academic-policy engagement. Yet many of the dissemination, training, networking, or similar knowledge exchange activities primarily served research interests, rather than addressing policy agendas. We also find good evidence that the huge expansion of knowledge exchange activity wastes time and effort across the science system. Policymakers are bombarded with requests to participate in researcher-led projects – in effect universities are competing with each other for access to policymakers with scarce time and resource to be able to effectively triage offers. There is much duplication of projects with multiple universities offering similar or repeated engagement opportunities, often reinventing the wheel. 

My research into effective science-for-policy systems suggests that the different components of the system (funders, universities, brokering organisations, government) all have their roles to play in strengthening the overall system. At present, then, we have good intent on all sides, with provision of resources to enable useful activity, but little guidance about how this energy can be usefully directed. The potential benefits universities have to offer are certainly not being realized fully. How can this situation be addressed? What would universities have to do differently if they were to fully contribute towards the value of the investment in science and technology? Four suggestions:

1. Gear activity towards policy agendas

While at one stage it could plausibly be claimed that government is a ‘black box’ and that researchers have little insight into policy priorities, that is no longer the case. Since 2017, government departments, and increasingly other public sector organisations have published regularly updated knowledge priorities, called Areas of Research Interest. These provide researchers, funders and brokers with a window into how departments understand problems, and identify clear topics for research and knowledge exchange activities. To make this easier, we commissioned Overton to produce a searchable database, making all ARIs accessible and linking them to UKRI-funded projects.

2. Support a range of policy-relevant activities

Analysis of the ARIs enables identification of opportunities for discussion with policymakers beyond opportunities to share individual research projects. Most ARIs can be addressed using existing evidence and expertise. For over 80% of ARIs a significant body of evidence is already available. Universities could usefully consider how to mobilise this evidence, and how to support and reward staff to do this well. For example, evidence syntheses addressing ARIs could support departments in accessing key evidence-based messages, and help funders identify clear gaps where new research is needed. Universities could include synthesis and effective knowledge exchange activities in promotions and career development planning.

3. Develop a workforce with policy-relevant skills and knowledge

Looking at the ARIs over time and across departments also helps us to understand the skills and knowledge which government needs to access. For example, most departments have an interest in evaluation and data. The training and skills of a future policy-ready workforce can be easily inferred from these topics, and universities can adapt their educational offers in response.

Knowledge exchange in itself is skilled activity, which is currently poorly rewarded and very often undertaken in researchers’ own time.  Universities need to think harder about how to train and support a diverse workforce to develop capabilities in knowledge exchange, and to recognize and reward policy-relevant activities.

4. Serve the system, not just the university

Finally, the ARIs show how much overlap there is between government departments and across the public sector. Many departments, PSREs and agencies have related interests, if different perspectives and priorities. And there are gaps – not all topics can or will make it into ARI documents for a whole range of reasons. Both the overlaps and the gaps offer universities the opportunity to act to strengthen the science for policy system.

  • ARIs can help to identify orphan issues, where many departments are interested in a topic but have no overall lead. Here, universities could collaborate with each other and other partners to provide the resource and leadership around these issues.
  • Where there are shared topics, departments often commission research and engagement work but singly rather than in a coordinated and efficient fashion. Universities could co-ordinate within the sector, rather than placing this administrative burden on government.
  • Where there are areas where departments are not actively seeking research input, universities can conduct high-quality research and engage in constructive knowledge exchange to open debate around topics.

These are three examples of the ways in which universities could collaborate, rather than compete with each other. Rather than seeking to raise the profile and impact of their own institutions, universities should seek to address the main issues faced by the country, and to enable and support their staff to share their existing knowledge in as effective ways as possible.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

1 comment

  1. Ros Lucas says:

    Having raised the discrepancies and lack of co-operation between universities, together with prob ably wasted tax payer money, let alone student debt, it is time to rationalise, organise and plan forward, liaising with relevant industries in order to make the most of research, especially in the light of AI and digital resources also in danger of being expensively duplicated…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *