Articles Deepening interactions between academia and the third sector

Deepening interactions between academia and the third sector

Academic institutions are producing high quality, highly trusted social science data but this isn’t always translated into policy and practice. Why are universities not having the impact on social policy that we might expect? How can universities ensure their evidence is timely, relevant and applicable?

In a new report, InterAction, written by Professor Mark Shucksmith OBE, Carnegie UK Trust suggests that more interactive knowledge production by the third sector and universities is key.

Why collaborate?

Evidence-informed policy making is a messy business. Rather than being a simplistic or linear process with readily identifiable points for evidence to be injected in, the reality is complex and not always value free and rational. Policy-makers often have limited time to gather available evidence in order to make quick decisions and out of necessity, use shortcuts to do so. In this context, where the human factor is a major part of the ‘evidence ecosystem’, coalitions of like-minded people and lobbying groups can be just as effective at shaping policy as evidence alone.

On the ground practitioners too, often struggle to incorporate academic evidence. Faced with a sea of information they rarely have the expertise or time to systematically review evidence and synthesise this into practical action.

Shared objectives

Universities and the third sector may differ in their culture, approach and timetables but they share a common desire to improve society. In the complicated world of evidence-informed policy both the academic expertise of universities and the tacit knowledge of the third sector are valuable.

To be good for society universities and the third sector must understand both what they are good for and what they are good at. They must ‘find productive common ground that serves the public good’ and forge new, stronger, mutually respectful relationships.

This means closer working relationships. The closer the relationship between researchers, the third sector and wider civil society (the informal and formal associational life that exists beyond governments and business) the more likely it is that research will be timely, relevant and readily translated into advocacy products and practical solutions.

What does collaboration look like?

Interaction sets out ways in which the boundary between academia and civil society can be softened. Two alternative models are suggested: a more conservative model which relies on an intermediary body to bridge the gap between science and policy and a more radical co-production model which disrupts conventional research practices.

Professor Shucksmith also makes a number of specific recommendations to universities, the third sector and funders. These include: a recommendation to universities to employ specialist knowledge exchange workers to facilitate interaction between the worlds of social science, policy and practice; a recommendation to the third sector to invest in innovative ways of finding spaces for the intersection of academic and practitioner knowledge and a recommendation to higher education funding bodies to resource the provision of gateways through which third sector organisations, businesses and other publics can make contact with researchers in universities.

While a mix of interventions to promote the production and use of relevant research are important InterAction argues that to tackle the ‘wicked’ policy challenges of the 21st century, interactive boundary transcending research is vital. To understand these complex and interlinked issues more fully, to identify practical solutions and to shape policy for the public good we must draw on the knowledge and expertise of all sectors.


Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.