Humanities PGRS Q and A with Lord David Willetts – 2nd Nov 2015

CSFL7717On Monday 2nd November, 2015, eleven University of Manchester PhD students attended a policy masterclass led by Lord David Willetts, former Minister for Universities and Science on the question of how today’s rising star postgraduate researchers can get political attention for their research.

This event was part of Policy Week (2 – 9 Nov 2015) held at the University of Manchester. As well as acting in the House of Lords, Lord Willetts is the Executive Chairman of The Resolution Foundation, an independent think tank as well as a member of the Council for the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Students were invited to submit a proposal that included a description of their research, their particular interest in public policy, and one question they could ask Lord Willetts. The students submitted seven different research agendas from across three Faculties – Humanities, Medical and Human Sciences and Engineering and Physical Sciences.

Here is a quick summary of the students and the specific questions they asked Lord Willetts during this Masterclass:

Lydia Westrup from The Alliance Business School, whose research is examining the mechanisms and processes involved in responsible banking, started us off with a question about how to engage business and political elites as well as the public in the debate about responsible banking.

In a similar vein James Coutinho – of The School of Social Sciences,  who has been researching workers co-operatives, wanted to know how to inform policy makers and where to target dissemination.

The next two researchers were looking at controversial research topics and potentially faced a greater challenge of getting their evidence in the policy discussion. Jasmin Cooper, from The Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences whose research examines sustainability of shale gas development, asked was it possible to present controversial research so it is seen as balanced and not biased. Joseph Ritchie, from The School of Law, also is examining the controversial topic of how to respond to psychoactive substances and asked how it was possible to discuss non-punitive approaches to addressing problems of increase in these substances?

Rita Oladele, from The Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, wanted to know how it might be possible to galvanise UK policy makers to stimulate policy development around tackling pulmonary fungal infections in Nigeria.

Maria Karaulova, of the Manchester Institute for Innovation Research at The Alliance Manchester Business School, and who is researching the problem of brain drain in new transnational academic labour markets, asked if qualitative research seen as valid and is it problematic being seen as an advocate.

Helen Underhill from the School of Environment, Education and Development, who researches the civic engagement of Egyptian diaspora in the UK, had a very specific question for Lord Willetts in relation to his own research agenda: “How can we encourage participation in voluntary associations and civil society  from all backgrounds and diversity?”

CSFL7774Lord Willetts addressed each question in turn and while it is difficult to report on specific answers, here is a summary of the top ten take home messages:

  • Show what you are adding to the debate to smart people in Government
  • Assume there are policy makers who understand your expertise
  • Assume policy makers are very busy people
  • Hone and sharpen your message – what is your ‘added value’ or distinctive insight
  • Finding the right individual sitting in the right role in the network of policy making with the right knowledge/commitment/interest is key
  • Use public statements ie commitment to ‘new’ principle of internationalisation by public bodies to find an ‘in’
  • Use other public agendas to press your key argument ie austerity, big society etc can provide the context for your idea to be presented
  • Charitable groups have clout and credibility so target these bodies
  • Don’t be defensive – turn what you perceive as a weakness into a strength
  • Avoid spurious precision i.e. if arguing there is a gap in data then estimates can be less detailed or undermine the argument

Visit Radio 4’s Start the Week programme in which Lord David Willets appeared on the same day as the masterclass. There he discussed the difficulty governments face in dealing with uncertainty, and his role at the think tank Resolution Foundation where he’s attempting to use analytical research to improve policy on living standards.


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